A New Article Explains How Crime Guns Get Into The ‘Wrong Hands’

When a serious scholar like Philip Cook publishes research on gun violence, the pro-gun community usually ignores what he has to say.  This is because Professor Cook has been publishing important work on the risks of guns for nearly forty years, and the folks who don’t believe that guns are a risk would rather pretend he doesn’t exist.  Which is why I found it interesting that his latest work on how criminals get their guns has made the headlines in the pro-gun media, from the NRA to the National Review.

          Philip Cook

Philip Cook

The pro-gun headlines, however, tell a much different story than the one we get from Phil Cook.  Because what Cook and his research colleagues were trying to find out was information about the operation of the ‘informal’ gun network; i.e., gun transfers which occur outside of the regulatory environment that defines initial gun transfers between customers and FFLs.  And since only 10% of the guns acquired by the survey respondents came directly from legal sources, the whole point of this research was to illuminate the shadowy and unmapped world of illegal guns.  Or to be more precise, how guns were acquired by people who were then arrested for using or carrying them in illegal ways.  Incidentally, this article appears in the special Preventive Medicine issue on gun violence edited by Daniel Webster and David Hemenway whose lead editorial I discussed last week.

The pro-gun noisemakers are falling over each other telling their followers that this article justifies their opposition to every gun regulation of any kind, because the criminals themselves admit that only 10% of the guns they use come through legal channels to them.  So what’s the point, for example, of expanding background checks to secondary transfers if gun-toting criminals get all the guns they want without undergoing a background check at all?  To quote the geniuses at the NRA: “Since these criminals do not use gun stores, gun shows, or even legal private gun sellers, there is no point in the criminal supply chain where a background check would make any difference whatsoever.”

The NRA’s been peddling this crap since they lost the battle to prevent NICS background checks in 1994. Here’s the organization’s official statement on the issue: “NRA opposes expanding background check systems at the federal or state level. Studies by the federal government show that people sent to state prison because of gun crimes typically get guns through theft, on the black market, or from family members or friends, and nearly half of illegally trafficked firearms originate with straw purchasers—people who can pass background checks, who buy guns for criminals on the sly. No amount of background checks can stop these criminals.” And guess what?  Now they have the esteemed gun researcher Phil Cook validating the NRA point of view!

Except that’s not the point of Phil’s research at all. To the contrary, the article contains a very interesting graphic (Page 30) along with excerpts from respondent interviews which illustrate the degree to which nearly all the guns acquired by inmates passed through multiple hands following the initial, legal transaction that took place in an FFL’s store.  And even though the lack of NICS checks over secondary (or tertiary or quaternary or quinary) transactions was the rule for guns by themselves of their friends, few of the jailed inmates interviewed in this study had any idea of exactly how or when their guns first disappeared from lawful commerce and ended up in the mean streets.

What makes this article so powerful and compelling is that it’s not based on data so much as on the words of gun-carrying criminals themselves.  The fact that again and again inmates mentioned their fears of getting caught with a gun validates the notion that gun regulations work.  The respondents in this study clearly understood that giving them a gun was putting it in the ‘wrong hands.’ In that respect, the felons in Cook County Jail are way out in front of the NRA.

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Illinois Finally Lets Residents Carry Guns – Kind Of.

Back in 2010, SCOTUS decided that the only state which did not issue concealed weapons permits  – Illinois – had to get in line with the 2008 Heller decision and let state residents carry guns.  After a lot of back and forth between the governor and the legislature, a bill was finally approved which went into effect this past weekend.  And much to everyone’s astonishment, the website that has to be used for the CCW application actually works! It’s working so well that the State Police processed and approved more than 13,000 applications by Tuesday and is gearing up for more to come.  There are over 3 million gun licenses floating around Illinois, and while nobody knows how many license-holders will want to carry their guns, the $150 application fee hasn’t yet been seen as a barrier against the exercise of this precious 2nd Amendment right.

Sheriff Tom Dart

Sheriff Tom Dart

Meanwhile, gun owners had even more reason to cheer because on Monday a Federal judge, appointed by President Obama no less, issued a ruling declaring Chicago’s ban on retail gun sales to be unconstitutional which means that, at some point, city residents won’t have to take a trip out of town in order to buy a gun. The city was given time to respond to the ruling and, if the experience in Washington, D.C. is any guide, folks in the Windy City shouldn’t expect to be able to go walking into the neighborhood gun boutique any time soon.

For that matter, those Illinois residents who take the time and trouble to get their hands on a concealed-carry license aren’t going to be walking around whistling Dixie either, if only because the provisions of the new law that define where, when and how a concealed weapon can be carried within the state are a wonder to behold.  And not only is the law complicated and laced with all kinds of exceptions and variations on the rules, there’s even confusion about how to enforce it on the part of law enforcement agencies themselves.  The law, for example, doesn’t let you bring a concealed weapon to a street fair but allows you to walk through the fair if you are on your way home.   Try enforcing that one – yea, right.

Meanwhile, the other problem with the licensing process, according to one expert – Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart – is that the application process is so flawed that people with histories of violence or mental illness will still be able to be approved.  At issue is the use, or I should say, non-use of the LEADS database, which is a catch-all compendium of data from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that is used to access information about just about anything and everything, including gang membership, stolen boats, missing persons, foreign fugitives, snowmobile registration and God knows what else.  By the way, it also contains a fairly complete record on violent crime. Dart claims that LEADS should be used to approve applications for CCW in Illinois; the new CCW law specifically prohibits its use.  The Cook County sheriff is known to be an opponent of concealed carry, and while his stated objections to the new law have gained him some kudos with the gun control crew, he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to those who hold the opposite point of view.

I’m not a law enforcement expert, nor do I claim to hold a degree in Constitutional law.  But I do wish occasionally that some of the howlers and yowlers on both sides of the gun debate would consider being a bit more modest when it comes to being for or against guns. Like it or not, walking around with a concealed weapon is an issue of public safety, and if sheriffs in states like Colorado and New York have the right to state their unwillingness to enforce new gun control laws, then a sheriff in Illinois who believes that a new gun control law won’t do what it’s supposed to do is also obligated to make and state his case.