Restrictions Make Handguns Hard to Get in Some U.S. Cities

DURHAM, N.C. -–  When police make it a priority to crack down on illegal guns, it reduces the amount of guns available to youths and criminals and makes guns harder to obtain, according to a new study based on interviews with gang members and illicit gun dealers in two high-crime, Chicago neighborhoods.

The research, published in the November issue of The Economic Journal, indicates that gun restrictions can also make a real difference in reducing the death rate from violent crime.

“The common perception is that handguns are everywhere, like grains of sand on the beach,” said Philip Cook, a professor at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and co-author of the study. “We find that isn’t true. Guns are quite scarce in some American cities, and scarcity reduces gun use in crime.”

Firearms are involved in two-thirds of America’s 18,000 annual homicides. The estimated annual cost to society of gun violence in the United States is $100 billion, according to previous research done by Cook and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago (Gun Violence: The Real Costs, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

The new study involves a detailed economic analysis of underground gun markets in Chicago, where handgun ownership was banned in 1982. Because Chicago’s gun laws are unusually restrictive, the city provides a useful laboratory for examining the difference that government regulations can make, Cook said. The study contrasts the underground gun market, which has relatively few transactions and high risk, with the market for illicit drugs, where there is a high volume of transactions and relatively little enforcement pressure.

One of the study’s co-authors, Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University, conducted more than 500 interviews with gang members, gun dealers, prostitutes, police, professional thieves and public school security guards in two high-crime neighborhoods in Chicago’s South Side in order to learn about prices, waiting times and other details of the illegal gun market.

His interviews describe a black market in which criminals, unable to find a gun, sometimes hire brokers to handle the task at a cost of $30 to $50 -- and even they fail to complete a transaction 30 to 40 percent of the time. When guns do change hands, they are often of poor quality and sold at high prices. One youth reported spending $50 to get 10 bullets for a Beretta semi-automatic for which he had paid $300. By contrast, in the legal market a box of 500 rounds of 9 millimeter ammunition typically costs about $50.

And though criminal buyers could avoid these obstacles by sending a girlfriend or other proxy to the suburbs to obtain guns legally from licensed dealers, the researchers find that that rarely happens in practice.
A high percentage of Chicago homicides are gang-related, and gang members can obtain guns more easily than non-members. Of the 57 adult gang members interviewed, 50 owned guns, as compared with 45 of the 90 non-gang adults interviewed. Gang leaders control the supply of weapons to their younger members in order to avoid bringing police attention to the gang.

The researchers also found that drug dealers have little motivation to branch out into gun sales because there is not much money to be made there and considerable risk of a crackdown by the Chicago police, who have long placed a high priority on interdicting illegal guns.

The research team also examined U.S Department of Justice data collected from interviews with people arrested in 22 other cities, including Washington and New York. The data generally support the conclusions drawn from the interviews in Chicago, suggesting that illegal gun market forces are similar in other large cities that have stringent handgun restrictions.

“Overall, these findings provide some basis for hope,” Cook said. “We have not lost the battle against gun misuse. Restricting criminal access to handguns is an important tool for saving lives.”

Other researchers involved in the project were Jens Ludwig and Anthony Braga of Harvard University. The Economic Journal is published by the Royal Economic Society.