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

Author:Cook, Philip J.
Position:Symposium on Guns in America

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. GUN TRANSACTIONS, LICIT AND ILLICIT II. FIREARMS TRACE DATA III. RETAIL DEALERS AS A DIRECT SOURCE OF GUNS TO VIOLATORS A. Age of Guns B. Direct Purchase of New Guns from Gun Dealers C. Indicators of Straw Purchase and Diversion by Dealers IV. GUN TRAFFICKING TO GANG MEMBERS A. Geography of Sources of Gang Guns B. Are Particular Dealers Relatively Important in Supplying Gang Guns? C. Prevalence of Guns with Obliterated Serial Numbers CONCLUSION APPENDICES INTRODUCTION (1)

In 2011, nearly half a million people were the victims of gun crime in the United States, according to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). (2) The annual social cost of gun violence in America may be on the order of $100 billion per year; (3) these harms are concentrated disproportionately in America's largest urban areas that are home to some of society's most economically and socially vulnerable members. (4) For example, in the City of Chicago, the study site for this Article, the homicide rate has averaged from sixteen to eighteen per one hundred thousand people in recent years--about three times the national average. (5) This citywide rate masks large and persistent geographic differences. Some communities experience zero homicides in a typical year; meanwhile, some of the most violent neighborhoods experience homicide rates of thirty to ninety per one hundred thousand people. (6)

Gun involvement greatly enhances the social costs of violent crime by enhancing the lethality of interpersonal violence: gun assaults are over thirteen times more lethal than criminal attacks involving knives, (7) and much more lethal still compared to attacks in which no weapon is used at all. (8) One indication of the relative lethality of guns compared to other weapons commonly used in violent crime is their overrepresentation in homicides (68% nationwide), compared to robberies (41%) or aggravated assaults (21%). (9) There is considerable evidence that the heightened "case fatality rate" for gun attacks is partly due to the ease of killing with a gun (compared to a knife or club), rather than to difference in the assailant's intent. (10)

The greater availability of guns in America provides one possible explanation for a striking pattern. Overall U.S. rates of violent crime are similar to those of other developed nations. (11) Yet U.S. homicide rates are many times the median rate among thirty-six industrialized nations. (12) This difference suggests that reducing gun involvement in criminal violence would greatly reduce the social costs of the problem, even if the overall volume of interpersonal violence were unchanged. In short, guns do not necessarily cause violence, but their use in violence increases the likelihood of death.

For the most part, the policy debate in the United States around gun violence has focused on the regulation of firearm transactions, possession, and use--"gun control." The chance of more stringent legislation in this area at the federal level or in Illinois seems low for the foreseeable future. In fact, recent judicial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit have gone in the other direction. The Supreme Court required Chicago to allow residents to keep handguns in their homes, (13) while the Seventh Circuit mandated that Illinois permit concealed carrying of firearms. (14) Which local firearm regulations will ultimately be deemed constitutionally permissible is somewhat hard to predict at present.

So what can be done? One answer is enforcement of existing regulations. Federal enforcement of firearms regulations and prohibitions is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Justice through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). (15) Most enforcement of laws regarding the criminal use of guns is the responsibility of local and state police departments. (16) As in all areas of policing, departments have discretion in setting strategic and tactical priorities in this area and appear to differ greatly in what they do and how they do it. (17) Regardless, a key limiting factor in shaping enforcement activities is money. General fund revenues for U.S. cities declined for six straight years from 2007 to 2012. (18) Even in better fiscal times, the resources available for supporting enforcement activities are finite. (19) Scarce funding means that it is important for local policymakers to focus enforcement activities on those tactics and strategies that generate the largest social good per dollar spent, which in turn requires guidance from the best available data and empirical evidence.

In this Article, we seek to help guide enforcement activities intended to reduce gang members' access to guns by investigating two potentially important sources--licensed retail dealers and traffickers. Our primary data set for this investigation utilizes firearms trace data, which merges information on the original sources of guns confiscated by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) with criminal history data on those who were arrested in conjunction with the confiscation. More specifically, this data set consists of crime gun trace requests submitted to ATF's National Tracing Center (NTC) by the CPD over the course of a five-year period (2009-2013), which our team then linked to other CPD administrative data sources about the person who was caught with the gun--including their prior criminal history and any gang affiliation.

These data on each person caught with a crime gun, including that person's identified gang affiliation, are particularly important to help answer a puzzle raised by some of our previous work. In our 2007 article Underground Gun Markets, we found evidence that guns are surprisingly difficult to obtain in the underground gun market in Chicago. (20) This evidence includes substantial price markups for guns on the street relative to the purchase price in legal transactions, substantial legal or physical risk and delays for criminals in their attempts to get a gun, and the existence of a system of retail brokers who charge a fee to facilitate exchanges between gun buyers and sellers. (21) Yet despite the difficulty for most people in getting guns on the streets, roughly four in five homicides in Chicago are committed with guns. (22) One way to reconcile this apparent contradiction is the hypothesis that those people at highest risk for involvement in shootings--in Chicago, mostly gang members--have more ready access to guns than does the average delinquent or criminal.

"Dirty dealers"--that is, dealers who intentionally violate the law--appear to account for a small share of all crime guns that wind up in the hands of gang members. Guns carried by gang members tend to be quite old--over ten years old on average--and to have changed hands many times. Direct, well-documented sales of guns by dealers to gang members account for less than 2% of the total. Of course, dealers may be supplying gang members through other types of transactions that are not observable using trace data: straw purchases, undocumented sales, transactions involving used guns, or theft. We do not find much evidence for large-scale illegal diversion of inventory by gun dealers. Our data do provide suggestive evidence, however, that when gang members are carrying new guns, those guns are relatively likely to come from a "straw purchase," in which someone (often assumed to be a girlfriend or wife) buys a gun on behalf of someone else who is legally prohibited from owning a gun. We also find that gun trafficking may be a more important source of guns to gang members than to other gun violators.

We find that only a small percentage of crime guns were directly obtained new from a Federal Firearms License (FFL) dealer in a documented sale. (23) This pattern holds true for crime guns confiscated from gang members as well as non-gang members. One challenge with estimating this percentage from administrative data sources is matching individually-identifying information in the ATF crime-gun trace data to CPD arrest records and other data sources, given the presence of data entry errors and missing data. We use probabilistic match techniques and estimate that 11% of adults acquired their crime guns new from an FFL dealer in a documented sale. This estimate is quite close to a comparable estimate (11.4%) based on the most recent national survey of adult prisoners, which was conducted in 2004. (24)

We also find that relatively few crime guns wind up in the hands of gangs because of illegal diversions of inventory by FFL dealers, at least as best as we can tell in our data. We use our dataset to calculate the share of crime guns that could be traced back to an identified FFL dealer but for which the paperwork kept by the FFL dealer was not available. We use this as a proxy for off-the-books transactions, such as selling inventory illegally out the back door; such transactions account for 5% of guns associated with gang members, almost identical to the share of guns taken from violators who are not in gangs.

Straw purchases seem to be a more important source of crime guns to gangs compared to other types of dealer sales. As one indication of the volume of straw purchases, we estimate that 15% of new guns that were sold within two years of confiscation and were taken from male gang members were first sold to a woman. Our data provide no direct way to tell how often dealers knew or suspected that a given sale was a straw purchase.

For enforcement purposes, a major concern is the possibility that gang members get their guns directly from "dirty dealers," that is, FFL dealers who are willing to violate the law by selling guns to people who should not be legally allowed to have them--including by looking the other way during a straw purchase. One indication for whether this is happening would be that guns found in the hands of gang members should come from a smaller set of FFL...

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