Researchers measure distance between guns, Chicago offenders

Less than three people stand between criminal offenders and guns in the city of Chicago, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of Urban Health.

Researchers at Northwestern University used arrest records and firearm recovery data collected from the Chicago Police Department between 2006 and 2013 to construct a “network” of offenders and their proximity — via associates — to firearms. The approach, considered novel within the scientific community, attempts to quantify how easily guns fall into the wrong hands.

“Literally, we wanted to know how many ‘handshakes’ away possible users of illegal firearms are to a gun,” said Andrew V. Papachristos, senior author of the study and a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, during an interview with the student-lead Northwestern Now website. “How easy is it for them to get a gun?”

Researchers focused in on a group of more than 188,000 co-offenders — defined as two people arrested together and therefore, likely to be associates or friends in a larger network of criminals. The study relayed the offender list with information on nearly 29,000 firearms seized from Chicago streets to map out the distance between the two data sets. Papachristos described the result as about “2.5 handshakes” apart.

“In the context of Chicago’s illegal gun markets, this means that guns are in relatively close — but not necessarily immediate — access to individuals in the network,” he said. “A distance of two equates with an ‘associates’ associate’ — the equivalent of asking someone for a gun and that person replying, ‘I know someone who can get you a gun.’”

An anonymous survey conducted by the University of Chicago in 2015 of 99 inmates at Cook County Jail — imprisoned mostly for gun-related charges — found nearly 70 percent said they bought and traded firearms through their social network.

Respondents said they often only bought or sold guns within these groups because they were afraid of selling to an undercover cop or police informant — feelings that were shared among their peers. “Dirty” guns — those used in crimes — were often disposed of or destroyed.

Northwestern researchers discovered gang affiliations lessens the distance between offenders and firearms by about 27 percent, indicating the organizations “play a key role in facilitating access to illegal guns.”

The University of Chicago survey found a similar result, with one inmate telling researchers, “the gang leaders, they’ll choose and pick who to go out and get the guns and bring ’em back.”

Papachristos admits the network methodology isn’t without flaws. For example, law enforcement data on recovered guns could underestimate or overestimate the total number of firearms available to criminals. Likewise, Chicago’s proximity to states with far more relaxed gun laws skews the impact of gun policies on the city’s crime rate, he said.

“While Chicago and Illinois have strict gun laws, the proximity to cash and carry’ states like Indiana make the borders of these markets a bit more porous than an analysis focusing on a single city might lead one to believe,” Papachristos said. “We need to understand how markets, even illegal ones, are shaped by policies and, in turn, what sorts of policies might be used to change the flow of guns in a network.”

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