When anti-gunners talk about waiting periods, “universal” background checks, closing various “loopholes” and all the other common refrains of gun control—sorry, “common-sense gun regulation”—their appeal is almost always to the assumed behavior of criminals. You can’t allow private transfers at gun shows, they say, because gang members will attend and load up on untraceable firearms. You’ve got to require private citizens to lock up their guns, because otherwise burglars will take them and sell them on the black market.
But how much do gun-control proponents actually know about the ways career criminals operate? They can’t ask the gang leader who works down the hall in IT, or read up on best practices in the latest issue of Home Invaders Weekly.
Recently some researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab had an idea: Why not seek out criminals who weren’t worried about going to prison—because they were already there—and try talking to them? The title of the resulting article in the journal Preventive Medicine—“Sources of guns to dangerous people: What we learn by asking them”—charmingly underlines the novelty of the approach. Almost 100 inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago were asked a number of questions meant to illustrate their habits of acquiring and maintaining firearms.Recently some researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab had an idea: Why not seek out criminals who weren’t worried about going to prison—because they were already there—and try talking to them?
The results are highly enlightening, and probably shocking to any gun-control fanatics who have bothered to devote any thought to them. Criminals don’t tend to steal guns, at least with the intent of using them—after all, police are already likely to be looking for these. They don’t attend gun shows and ask around for someone willing to sell firearms without a background check—an activity sure to draw unwelcome attention. They don’t even stock up on Bitcoin and buy guns off the “dark Web”—or off of eBay, as Kim Kardashian seems to think.
No, they get guns from their friends who don’t have criminal records. Usually this seems to be a one-off type of transaction, but some gangs are organized enough to set up large-scale straw purchases. The key is that the people who supply criminals with their guns aren’t going to throw up red flags when confronted with any of the myriad gun-control measures that have been proposed. According to Harold Pollack, co-director of the crime lab (and one of the authors of the study), “Some of the pathways people are concerned about don’t seem so dominant.”
That seems a fairly mild way of putting it. When we make statements to the tune of “criminals will always get guns,” this is not meant as a pose of fatalistic abandonment. Law-enforcement initiatives can go a long way toward keeping illegal firearms out of the hands of predatory individuals. But many will slip through, and there is little that can be done to deter criminals from trying, especially when they are more concerned with getting killed in their unsavory line of work than with going to jail: “Many [inmates] gave some version of the phrase ‘I’d rather be judged by 12 than be carried by six,’” according to Pollack.
The impossibility of reliably keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is one of the most important reasons for maintaining a well-armed populace. Knowing that a certain percentage of bad people will always be armed makes it essential that law-abiding citizens are as well. What we see more clearly than ever in the wake of this study is that gun control only affects the latter group. It is completely irrelevant to the typical criminal—or rather, only relevant inasmuch as it helpfully keeps guns out of the hands of potential victims.
Gun-control advocates are setting up roadblocks on the wrong “pathways” of gun trafficking. Adding another lock to your front door isn’t going to stop someone who was just going to come in through your window anyway.