On the Underground Gun Market, a Weapon Is ‘Two and a Half Handshakes Away’

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Photo by boris drenec via Flickr

Calling illegal-gun trafficking “contagious,” a Chicago researcher says that despite very strict gun control, someone who wants to use a weapon to commit a crime is “two and a half handshakes away” from getting one through the underground market.

“Being around a gun increases your chance of being a victim several times over,” Andrew Papachristos, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, told journalists and justice professionals at John Jay College.

Papachristos was discussing the results of his recent study of the relationship between social media and guns at a panel during last week’s Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.

The panel was held as the nation was reeling from the latest school shooting– which left 17 students and teachers dead, and more than a dozen injured at a high school in Parkland, Florida last Wednesday. The 19-year-old shooter appears to have purchased his weapon legally, but the panel was told that recent estimates indicate only one out of every six firearms used in a crime in the U.S. is legally obtained.

The most devastating impact of illegal guns has been seen in America’s inner-city neighborhoods, the audience was told.

“This is obviously the hottest story of the day, but it’s also a perennial story, one that is a great burden on our society,” said Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University.

In “The Underground Gun Market: Implications for Regulation and Enforcement,” a paper published late last year in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Cook and co-author Harold A. Pollack of the University of Chicago reported that in the United States there are approximately 270 million guns in private hands, yet 78 percent of American adults do not own one.

In “The Stock and Flow of US Firearms: Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey,” it was revealed that “in 2015 the median owner had two guns, but 8 percent of all owners who owned ten or more accounted for 39 percent of the stock.”

The bottom-line statistics of deaths caused by guns in America was brought into sharp focus at the Guggenheim panel. Cook estimated the 2017 national murder total at 20,000, with 15,000 of those killings—75 percent—caused by a gun.

“These shootings are highly concentrated in terms of victims—young men, mostly minority, and to an extraordinary extent that certainly makes this a social justice issue, the death rate from homicide for young African-American men is 17 times as high for Anglo white men the same age,” Cook said.

“This is the greatest health disparity that I know about.”

Gun violence wreaks havoc on communities within large cities like Chicago, Cook said.

“It has effects on economic development—people of means leave those neighborhoods, businesses are unwilling to locate there, in additional to the fearfulness of people forced to stay there.”

Current gun control efforts focus on regulation through restrictions on sales—such as denying a purchase to someone with a felony record—and background checks to determine if the purchase should be blocked.

Cook pointed out that in a recent study of criminals convicted of gun crime, 40 percent said they obtained the gun used within 30 days of the crime, and two-thirds within the preceding year.

“This suggests that if we could somehow magically stop all of these transactions, the gun violence problem would be gone in about a year. That’s why the focus on transactions rather than the number of guns there are becomes a very important issue.”

Cook and other panelists emphasized that the illegal gun market is dissimilar to the illegal drug market. “In comparison, the underground gun market is peanuts economically,” Cook said.

The guns used in crime are almost always legally manufactured and first sold at retail by a licensed dealer and then make their way through a number of hands to the illegal owner.

“The best underground gun market definition is it consists of all the transactions that are illegal because the recipient is disqualified from owning or it may be illegal because there is a technical violation of local regulations involved,” said Cook.

Most gun sales resulting in violent crime do not come through licensed firearm dealers but buying from a family member or partner (“the girlfriend problem”), an acquaintance, or a street source, and there are virtually no open-air illegal-gun markets.

“There is a close alignment between the assaulters and the robbers, who in most cases get their guns illegally, while most Americans get their guns legally,” said Cook.

A University of Chicago Crime Lab multi-city study that looked at data from offenders and police records and ATF trace data showed that there is an underground traffic of guns from states with less regulation of guns to big cities in more regulated states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York.

“There is dramatic and irrefutable evidence that when the less regulated state makes it more difficult, they are cut back as a source of trafficked guns immediately,” Cook said. “This market is very responsive to local regulation.”

Papachristos used analysis of social networks to study how easy it is to obtain a gun. He found gun-violence victimization is intensely concentrated within networks of people within certain neighborhoods of a big city. In Boston, for example, he found that 85 percent of all gunshot victims were within a network of 700 people.

In the context of social-network science, gun violence is “contagious,” Papachristos said.

“It is actually spread and transmitted in the same way that other public health epidemics are transmitted.”

The focus of Papachristos’s research was answering the question: How do populations who are severely prohibited from owning guns get access to one in a city like Chicago with strict gun laws?

Within a network of about 127,000 people in Chicago—those who have been arrested or in contact with criminal-justice systems—on average people are within two and a half handshakes away from getting a gun, Papachristos concluded.

Gangs play a pivotal role in facilitating access, he said. If a person is a gang member, it’s “more like a handshake and a half.”

Kimberley Smith, research manager of  the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, said the lab team attempted to pull together data from different sources and “take a deep dive” to try to explain the 60 percent increase in homicides in Chicago and create a public report, released in 2017. Part of their goal was to understand where the guns used in homicides come from.

“Very few of the incarcerated individuals” who were interviewed got their guns directly from licensed gun dealers, Smith said. Nor were the guns stolen, for the most part. The weapons were purchased from “friends or family.”

The average street price of a gun purchased by a gang member in Boston was $640, according to David Hureau, State University of New York Albany, who analyzed the types of guns on the underground market for a study.

The panel was moderated by journalist Mark Obbie.

The full panel is available on YouTube here.

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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