Chicago inmates talk about buying guns from illegal market

A survey of Cook County inmates released Monday offers insight into Chicago’s underground market for gun sales, and includes details like who they buy guns from and where the guns originate.

“It is rare for offenders to buy from licensed dealers, and also rare for them to steal their guns. Rather, the predominant sources of guns to offenders are family, acquaintances, fellow gang members — which is to say, members of their social network,” researchers with the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago said of their findings.

They surveyed 99 inmates, who were selected base on their charges — the majority were gun-related — and their willingness to participate in exchange for a $10 phone card, at the Cook County Jail in the fall of 2013.

Although the interviews were done in person through a structured conversation, neither the interviewer nor the interviewee identified themselves. In other words, the interviews were conducted anonymously.

Researchers extracted statistical data from anecdotal details shared by the respondents. The data shows roughly 70 percent respondents would buy or sell guns, the majority of which were handguns, through their social network.

The majority, about 60 percent, either paid cash or traded something for a gun, 13 percent said they shared or were holding guns with others, and only 2.9 percent said their guns were stolen.

Respondents told researchers that they often only bought or sold guns within their social network because they were afraid of selling to an undercover cop or police informant, feelings that were shared among their peers. And more often than not, they would dispose (through sale or some other means) or destroy a firearm because they might be “dirty,” meaning used in a crime.

Also, the study details the life of a crime gun from when it is sold from a federal firearms licensed dealer, which requires the buyer to undergo a background check, to entering an illegal market through a secondary transaction. While an individual crime gun is often one or two times removed from the original buyer, the exact number of transactions — legal or illegal — are difficult to trace.

Chicago has notoriously strict gun laws that make it difficult to legally own and obtain a firearm, so in addition to finding hard statistical figures, respondents explained the nuances of a street purchase.

Where the guns come from

Most respondents offered some account of how guns made their way into neighborhoods, despite most responses being prefaced with “I don’t know.”

Respondent 42 gave a brief summary of where crime guns in Chicago originate, which researchers describe as “quite accurate.”

“There’s probably only one gun store that’s located throughout the whole city of Chicago which is famous. It’s Chuck’s Gun Store…. [b]ut as far as Chicago it’s so close to Indiana and in Indiana…there’s gun laws but it’s easier to get access to guns in Indiana so most people either go to the down-South states or go to Indiana to get guns or people obtain gun licenses, go to the store and then resell,” he said.

To own a gun in Illinois, one must first be issued a Firearm Owner ID card by state police before buying a gun, but some respondents explained how criminals sidestep FOID card requirements

“All they need is one person who got a gun card in the ‘hood’ and everybody got one,” said respondent 17.

Respondent 58 noted that people with gun cards buy guns, report them stolen, and then resell them. “That’s how we get them personally ourselves,” he said.

Other respondents depended on a single person or group of people to buy guns from out-of-state sources for them or their gang. “Six out of 10 times, people go out of state and brings them back,” respondent 32 said.

“The gang leaders, they’ll choose and pick who to go out and get the guns and bring ’em back,” respondent 69 said.

However, it’s not uncommon for outsiders from other areas or another state to bring guns into the neighborhood as well.

“I know the person, they purchase a lotta guns, it’s called a crate (which are then distributed within ‘the organization’),” respondent 8 said.

“Some people getting on a train and bring them back, can be up to five or six guns depending on how much risk they want to take,” respondent 85 said.

Several respondents mentioned the possibility of buying guns that were stolen from various locations.

“Sometimes people rob freight cars to get guns to sell,” said respondent 21, which researchers deduce was a reference to an incident in which guns being transported in a freight car were stolen last year. Respondent 62 shared a similar theory. “People break into trains to get crates of guns,” he said.

“A few years ago some guns in the neighborhood were from a robbed Indiana gun store,” respondent 68 said.

Two respondents claimed guns were coming from the government or corrupt police. “Police take guns and put them back on the street,” said respondent 52, and respondent 69 agreed, saying, “Crooked officers put guns back on the streets.”

A mutual trust

Out of fear of arrest, respondents emphasized the need of a mutual trust between the buyer and seller. Of the 50 respondents who commented on the matter, 16 said that anyone with money could buy a gun whereas 34 emphasized the importance of personal connections, researchers said.

Respondent 73 told researchers that race didn’t matter. “It’s about green, money. Money is the root of all evil. A person could be on a certain type of drugs and sell a $300, $400 gun for $100 because they need to go do whatever they want to do. So it’s really just about money, doesn’t matter,” he said.

Respondent 50 explained that age didn’t matter either. “If you got money, they’ll sell it to you no matter what age, race group or whatever as long as the money — if you got money to, you know, buy the gun,” he said.

But the majority said trust was more important than money when it came to buying or selling a gun.

“Me personally if you’re not from _____ and I don’t know you, I won’t sell you no gun. You couldn’t just walk up on me and be like, ‘You got a gun you wanna sell?’ So no, you probably have to know somebody,” respondent 78 said.

“You have to know the person to sell them. Just like with anything, drugs, guns, you have to know somebody,” respondent 42 said.

Respondent 30 agreed that it’s much easier to avoid authorities and make a sale comfortably within a network. “Pretty much it’s easy if you have a friend that knows a friend that has the guns for sale. They usually give them like, ‘Hey, you know, can you pass the word around?’ I’m trying to sell this for this much money or if they need money they’re like, ‘Hey, I’ve got these for sale,’” he said.

Fear of the undercover cop and gaining trust

Researchers said that a number of respondents stressed the importance of trust because of fear that the buyer or seller might be a police officer or an informant, which they say is reasonable because Chicago police routinely do undercover gun buys. So in some cases it’s advantageous to deny strangers.

“One way or another you have to know’em. They’re not too sure about, you — you know, your comfort about you not calling the police and telling on them to get them arrested. So some way or another you have to know ’em a little bit,” respondent 37 said.

“If they don’t know you from the neighborhood or if somebody doesn’t know you and you don’t have no kind of credibility, they’re not gonna buy a gun off of you,” respondent 21 said.

Researchers suggestion

Although more data is needed and a federal survey has not been conducted in over a decade, researchers hypothesize that an increase in police stings would put a significant dent in the illegal gun market.

“The police are a powerful influence on the nature of Chicago’s underground gun market. Fear of arrest limits what transactions take place, making the market much less efficient than it would be otherwise,” researchers said. “It appears, then, that continued and even expanded law enforcement efforts could increase transactions costs in this underground market.”

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