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by Peter Moskos

October 4, 2018

Why they carry illegal guns in Chicago

There an interesting study by the Urban Institute on young men carrying guns in Chicago. This has already been misrepresented in the Chicago Sun-Times as "1 in 3 young people surveyed in four Chicago neighborhoods say they carry a gun." Factually true... but meaningless because they're trying to survey people who carry a gun. 100% is the goal. It's not trying to be a representative sample (even of a high violence neighborhood) or figure out how many people carry illegal guns. Rather, they tried to figure out why people carry guns (and what will make them less likely to do so).

Not surprisingly, most people who carry a gun illegally do not do so all the time. Of gun carriers (n = 97), 7% say they always carry; 16% say they often do; 32% say sometimes; 45% rarely. Most who carry say they do so "for protection," which also isn't surprising. (What is surprising is the 6 people who said they carry a gun to commit crime.) Fear is real. So is the chance of being shot. So either we work to arm everybody who is afraid, or -- better -- we deescalate the streets and work to reduce fear by reducing violence and number of people carrying illegal guns.

Of those who carry a gun, 37% say they have been the victim of a shooting or attempted shooting in past year. 85% know somebody who has. That figure is important and perhaps not well known enough. Instead of complaining when certain politicians call Chicago a disaster or a war torn -- "oh, it's not all neighborhoods," say some -- perhaps we should focus on making sure some neighborhoods aren't so lethal!

Most respondents say it’s easy to get a gun, and they could get one in a few hours from a street dealer, a friend or family member, or steal a gun. 84% of gun carriers say they’re not likely to get caught carrying. That percentage is lower (by a little) for those who don’t carry. Still, this indicates some potential for a deterrent effect.

The sample of those who have illegally carried a gun is, not surprisingly, not pro-police. 75% of those who have carried say police have stopped them “for no good reason.” This in kind of ironic, since illegal gun carriers are exactly whom we want police to stop.

And there's an odd bit of data presentation. Either they're not being great at the stats game or are trying to mislead. I think it’s the former. Two groups are compared over and over again: “those who have carried” and “entire sample.” But why include the first group in the 2nd group and then compare differences? Separate them. Also, "entire" implies it's representative of something, but it's not. It's a non-random targeted sample.

The groups are easy to separate. Or at least I did so based on their figure 9. And when I did so, for instance, 71% of the sample says police “often stop people for no good reason.” But of those who don't carry guns, that figure goes down to 60%. Even for this sample, it’s surprising to me that of those who don't carry, as many as 40% cannot agree with the statement "police stop people for no good reason."

I would like to see a sample in the same neighborhood of those who have nothing to do with carrying illegal guns or those who do. What are their opinions of police? That’s the group I would care about, in terms of police legitimacy.

Do tell us what illegal-gun carriers think of police. But criminals aren’t supposed to like the police. And as this is an intentionally non-random sample, the part of the sample that doesn’t carry (or says they don’t) is an odd group from which one should not generalize.

Their attitudes on police will be used to question police “legitimacy,” but that seems like abit of a distraction. The carriers of guns say they are carrying because of fear of victimization. More violence decreases legitimacy. Fewer stops by the Chicago Police Department haven’t increased legitimacy. And after having a “well paid job,” the top 5 leading preventative factors, according to those who carry illegal guns, are “none of their friends did,” “knew they would be arrested,” “more police on the street,” “guns cost more," and “knew they would end up doing time.”

To me those are all clues. I do want to know why gun carriers carry guns. And I also want to know what those don't carry avoid doing so. The study concludes by stressing non-police "holistic" solutions “outside the criminal justice system” (which are no doubt needed). But based on gun-carrying respondents, four of the top six solutions involve police.

Fear of getting caught can give people an out, a good excuse to not carrying a gun. Even though people don’t want to admit it, arrest, prosecution, legal stops, and legal frisks are *part* of the solution. And while others get holistic, police can focus on the police side. Police can reduce violence by reducing fear by getting people to leave their guns at home. De-policing to reduce encounters in Chicago (and elsewhere) hasn't worked. "Holistic" needs to include police.

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