Some sources of crime guns in Chicago: Dirty dealers, straw purchasers, and traffickers

Journal Article (Journal Article)

In this Article, we seek to help guide law enforcement activities targeting gun acquisition by high-risk people by examining two potentially important sources of crime guns: licensed retail dealers and traffickers. Limited data availability is a key reason more is not currently known about how criminals obtain guns. This Article assembles a unique dataset that combines five years (2009–2013) of crime gun trace requests submitted to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Tracing Center (NTC) by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), linked to other CPD data sources about the person who was caught with the gun. From these data, we are able to identify which of the violators are or have been gang members and to compare their guns with those of violators who are not gang members. We focus in particular on how gang members obtain guns, since this population is at the highest risk for shooting someone and for being shot. We hypothesize that gang members may differ from others in how they access guns. This hypothesis could help explain why our earlier work found that the underground gun market as a whole in Chicago is characterized by high transaction costs that keep many criminals from becoming armed, yet the vast majority of the city’s homicides are committed with guns. Our first finding is that the guns confiscated by the police from gang members tend to be quite old—a median age of over ten years—with every indication that they have gone through a series of transactions before being acquired by the current owner. It is very rare for these guns to be purchased new from a gun dealer in a documented sale (occurring in less than 2% of circumstances). Besides the age of the guns, the most striking fact about gang guns is that most come from out of state. Even for new guns, fully 60% are imported. It appears that while licensed dealers may play some small direct role in arming gang members, other intermediaries are far more important. If enforcement is to be effective at reducing access to guns by gang members, a likely focus is on the intermediaries in the underground market—straw purchasers, brokers, and traffickers. Gathering information on these intermediaries will require interviews with the violators in addition to further analysis of trace data.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Cook, PJ; Harris, RJ; Ludwig, J; Pollack, HA

Published Date

  • January 1, 2015

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 104 / 4

Start / End Page

  • 717 - 760

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0091-4169

Citation Source

  • Scopus