A study from researchers at Duke University and the University of Chicago found that about 40 percent of the prisoners they surveyed did not own a gun six months before committing the crime that landed them in prison.
“What they told us was that they had a lot of experience in obtaining guns but they didn’t hang onto them,” said the study’s lead author, Philip Cook, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
Cook argues that that means law enforcement has a chance to prevent many of these crimes by disrupting the underground gun market.
“It’s not just a question about how many guns there are total,” he said. “The question is what do the transactions look like that from week-to-week serve to arm the most dangerous people?”
The study’s authors argue that punishing more people without criminal records who buy guns for criminals, known as “straw buyers,” and conducting undercover gun purchases would go a long way in preventing crimes.
“The basic idea is to say these transactions are illegal, are what are feeding robberies, assaults, murders in a direct way,” Cook said. “It should be a high priority to disrupt those transactions.”
Cook and his colleagues surveyed only inmates from Chicago who’d been charged with gun-related crimes.
According to Cook, guns are harder to acquire in Illinois than many other states. The state performs its own background checks and issues a Firearm Owners ID, making it difficult to find guns in the underground market.
“And so it’s not impossible to think that we could tighten the screws a bit and make it particularly legally more hazardous to sell guns to criminals,” Cook said, “and that would have an effect immediately.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.