“Oh, it’s not hard to use a gun. All you got to do is pull the trigger,” says Samuel.
Samuel, a former Chicago gang member, grew up in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project in Chicago. In a recent podcast of Ways & Means, he agreed to discuss his life with guns, using an alias that would allow him to talk freely.
Guns were easy to obtain when he was a youngster, Samuel told us. Adults would shoot dice in front of the building, and he would offer to hold their guns. Sometimes he’d be sitting on a nearby bench with 10 guns on him.
“I had them all around my waist, in my pants pocket,” he says. He’d lean back in his seat, loaded with guns, as if to say, “Just look at me now.”
At the time, he was only 11 or 12 years old.
“Holding a gun … it’s power,” he says. “To see the gangsters in the neighborhood, I wanted to be a reflection of them.”
Pretty soon, Samuel had his own gun. At first, he would climb to the roof of the project, 15 floors up, and shoot towards the sky. But before he turned 15, Samuel had shot someone – and been shot himself.
When he was 20, Samuel was convicted of murdering a rival gang member.
None of this would have happened, Samuel says now, if he had not had such easy access to guns.
Philip J. Cook, a professor emeritus at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is one of the top researchers on the costs and consequences of the widespread availability of guns in America. For one study, his team conducted interviews with inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
They asked 99 inmates a simple question: where do you get your guns?
And the research is clear: while policymakers argue about background checks for legal gun purchases, criminals, for the most part, are not getting guns through legal means. Most of the young men the researchers consulted couldn’t have legally owned a gun, either because they were too young, or because they already had criminal records.
The young men definitely didn’t have an Illinois Firearm Owners’ ID card. Instead, most of the men said they got the gun from someone they knew.
Samuel agrees. In his Chicago neighborhood, he says he had access to a huge variety of guns: shotguns, handguns, carbines, even Uzis. And there were plenty of people around who could get him any kind of gun he needed, even when he was underage.
“It’s very easy,” he remembers. “I mean, just like you go and order beer, you go ask one of your gang members and say you need a gun. And being that they’re much older than you, they knew exactly where to go get the guns from.”
But even though it was relatively easy to get guns, gang members, for the most part, aren’t really in the business of selling guns— especially to outsiders, researchers say.
“They might acquire guns and keep them in the stash and pass them around within the membership, but this was not a business proposition for them,” Cook says.
Inmates who were interviewed for the study even said they conducted street-level “background checks” before selling guns to someone they didn’t know.
Editor’s Note: Prof. Cook and other researchers discussed the “underground gun market” at last month’s H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. Watch the panel here.
The widespread ease of access to guns—all kinds of guns—matters.
Because even though gun rights advocates argue that it’s people who kill people—not guns who kill people—Cook says his research is clear: the choice of weapon often determines if a victim lives or dies.
“There are no drive-by knifings,” Cook told us. “The type of weapon matters a lot … People who resist the idea that that the type of weapon matters take the view that whether the victim lives or dies is simply a reflection of the intention of the assailant.
“(They argue that) if the assailant is deprived of a high-powered pistol, for example, then they’ll make do with some other type of weapon and do whatever is necessary to see the job done. And that is a myth. It’s a belief based on no evidence, and every bit of evidence we have would point in the other direction.”
Cook’s research shows lawmakers do have the power to stop the flow of guns into urban neighborhoods like the one Samuel grew up in. For example, laws designed to regulate legal gun sales can significantly affect the underground market.
After Maryland passed a Firearm Safety Act in 2013, 41 percent of surveyed parolees in the state reported that it was more difficult to get a handgun. And a study of over three decades of data on handguns recovered in Boston shows that fewer guns are illegally obtained from states where people are restricted to legally buying just one gun a month.
Cook also advocates for a change in the way law enforcement deals with guns when they make an arrest.
“When a dangerous person gets picked up and has a gun, there needs to be a lot of questions asked about where that gun came from,” Cook says.
He argues that if detectives spent time tracking the history of the gun, law enforcement might ultimately be able to arrest the person who sold that gun, and presumably other guns, into the underground market.
Soon, Cook says, law enforcement could begin to chip away at the stream of guns getting into the wrong hands.
This story originally appeared as an episode from the Ways & Means podcast which offers bright ideas for how to improve society. Readers are invited to listen to the entire episode, and subscribe.