Investigating the Networks that Supply Guns to Gangs

March 10, 2015

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

During his time in residence at RSF, Visiting Scholar Philip J. Cook (Duke University) is completing a series of articles based on research in four cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston) that examines the sources of guns to gang members. He argues that a better understanding of the social networks and other underground sources of guns will inform strategic interventions to disrupt supply and reduce gun violence.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Cook discussed the social costs of gun violence, and offered strategies for law enforcement to disrupt the tightly knit networks that supply guns to gangs.

Q. What are the social costs of gun violence and how are they unequally distributed across the population?

It’s useful to look at gun violence from a few different frameworks. First, there’s the criminal justice framework, where the discussion of gun violence is focused on robbery, assault, and murder. Based on my research, the introduction of guns into violent encounters intensifies those encounters and increases the chance that the victim of the crime will die. The reason why the U.S. has such a high murder rate is due to a large extent to the fact that we have so many guns, and that our violence, in comparison with the violence of England or Canada or Australia, is more likely to be committed with guns.

The public health perspective that was first developed in the early 1980s opens a different window into the problem of gun violence. While criminal justice usually focuses on the perpetrator, the public health perspective focuses on the victim. From the public health point of view, it’s clear that gun violence has the effect of shortening life expectancy—and over 60% of the gun deaths from this perspective are the result of suicide rather than assault. The question of how to take guns out of the hands of suicidal people has subsequently become a major issue for public health researchers.

The third perspective, on which I co-authored a book, examines the community effects of gun violence and looks at gun violence as a disamenity like bad air or traffic congestion. Residents of neighborhoods that have high rates of gun violence are regularly terrorized. Whether or not they actually become direct victims of that violence, it has a profound effect on their lives. For instance, you can read heart-wrenching stories about mothers who have their children sleeping in the bathtub in case a stray bullet comes through the window during the night. Gun violence has very tangible effects on neighborhood property values, outmigration, local businesses, and economic development generally.

Gun violence is distributed unequally across the population no matter which perspective you take. Certainly the most glaring inequalities have to do with the fact that young African American men have astoundingly high murder victimization rates. They’re about 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to become murder victims. And among young black men, murder is the leading cause of death by more than the next nine causes combined.

You can see these extraordinary disparities from neighborhood to neighborhood in large cities. Much of our research has been in Chicago, where upscale neighborhoods have essentially no murder, but abut on neighborhoods that have murder rates of 70 or 80 per 100,000—ten or fifteen times the national average. So we can see that not only is gun violence a substantial burden on public health and standard of living, but it’s a very unequally distributed burden.

Q. Your study of gun violence in Chicago found that guns were relatively scarce in the city, yet gang members were able to obtain them. What kinds of networks enable this access?

Guns aren’t easy to get for people who are disqualified from purchasing them by a criminal background. That’s no doubt a good thing, but in our research, the sad mystery was that something like 85% of the murders in Chicago are committed with guns, which indicates that the most dangerous criminals do somehow have access to them. Our current project attempts to understand how criminals—and particularly gang members—are getting these guns. The research we’ve done so far, which includes interviews in Cook County Jail, has found that gang members are obtaining their guns through social networks, mostly locally, though in some cases they go to other states where they have connections. Sometimes those connections are other gangs that are connected to the gang that is seeking guns. There are also people who are bringing guns into the city that are making money through trafficking. There are a variety of networks, but in every case it appears that gang members have contacts that allow them access to guns—which probably isn’t the case for a garden-variety thief or other petty criminal.

Q. What kinds of policies and procedures could help reduce the supply of guns to gangs in major cities in the US?

Targeting these networks could be one way for the police to reduce gang members’ access to guns. Those networks facilitate gun transactions because the individuals have reason to trust each other. The people that we talked to understand that selling guns in Chicago to violent criminals may result in their being arrested or ripped off, and are therefore reluctant to sell to anyone they don’t know. In fact, in some cases they do their own background checks! However, we heard from a number of respondents in Cook County Jail that there are some people who sell guns from time to time in their neighborhoods who actually aren’t very careful. These sellers were typically identified as drug users, so the Chicago police could start by looking at drug addicts when they perform undercover buys of guns.

Another suggestion is to target the prior relationships that are supporting these gun transactions, by debriefing people that are arrested with guns, asking them where and how they got the guns, and possibly trading lighter sentences in exchange for further information. That would mean that those connected to gangs, such as family members and girlfriends and so forth, might think twice about selling guns to them. The goal is to introduce a sense of legal risk into any underground transaction.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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