The Social Trends Driving American Gangs and Gun Violence

The New York Times [recently had] a front page story up about Chicago, wondering how a city with "strict" gun laws can have so many guns on the street and so many murders. I found the piece a little puzzling, because it felt like the answer was right in the article -- that being that Chicago can't really control the gun laws of neighboring jurisdictions. That was also the day that Gabby Giffords comes up to the Hill along with (though not accompanying!) Wayne LaPierre.

But before jumping to that stuff I want to pick up on two points you raised toward the end of your reply. Can you talk more about the effort "to disrupt the underground markets?" What does that actually mean? What are the details that go into that? Is this mostly a matter of more arrests, targeted arrests?

And also can you talk more about -- if I may say this -- gangs as an uneasy (and unsustainable) check on rampant violence.

I'm glad that you mention that [New York Times] piece. The underlying analysis of trace data was actually performed by my terrific University of Chicago Crime Lab colleague Seth Bour. An impressive fraction of seized crime guns came from one place: Chuck's Gun Shop, located just over the city line.

[January 29 was] an especially sad day in the neighborhood just north of my office. Not far from President Obama's house, a student at King Prep high school was shot at 2:30 in the afternoon near the school. She had performed at the Inauguration.

She was apparently hanging out with her volleyball team. She was fatally shot in the back when a gunman fired into a crowd of students. A study I did with a student found that about 20 percent of Chicago gun homicide victims were clearly not the specific targets. This seems like another one of those cases.

[On the issue of underground markets,] I defer to my colleagues Phil Cook, Jens Ludwig, and colleagues who are national authorities here. Here is a terrific paper for those interested.

A few basic points.

First, many of the people we most worry about getting hold of guns are pretty unsophisticated consumers. We have good opportunities to stop these often-young people with relatively simple measures such as reverse buy-and-bust operations.

Second, the criminal justice system has traditionally not taken the underground/illegal gun market all that seriously as a distinct issue. The legal risks are pretty low on straw purchasers and on people who sell guns to people they have reasons to know might be felons. It's easy to claim that a gun was lost or stolen if you give it to someone else who then uses it in a crime.

Committing a specific violent crime with a gun is taken very seriously. Yet just being caught with a gun -- or being involved in the supply chain of the illicit gun market -- isn't taken as seriously as it should be by many in law enforcement and the courts. If one hasn't specifically used that gun to commit (another) crime, we don't always respond with the urgency that we should. If judges don't take something seriously, and if the penalties are pretty light, these offenses will receive low-priority in the queue for police and prosecutorial resources. We must treat the illicit gun markets with the full range of tools and with the same determination applied to illicit drug markets.

Some practical measures can make a real difference here. For example, President Obama is directing federal prosecutors to give these cases higher priority. I think this will help.

When an 18-year-old kills someone with a gun, very often some adult had something to say about that young man having access to a gun, or whether, when and where that young man might be carrying a loaded gun when some otherwise manageable incident escalates into a shooting. If these young men are in some way gang-affiliated, homicides are often called gang homicides. Some homicides result from explicit conflict between criminal organizations. Yet in many, many cases, the actual altercation was over some personal or family beef quite peripheral to any larger gang issue.

I tell people that the typical Chicago murder follows the equation: Two young men + stupid beef + gun = dead body. Remove the gun from that equation, and you prevent many dead bodies.

There is some evidence that focusing on these adults can be helpful in reducing certain kinds of gun crime. If, for example, a young man is gang-affiliated, we want to ensure that the adults in leadership positions within these organizations understand that they will face personal consequences if that young person commits any kind of gun crime.

I am a big believer in violence-oriented policing in considering (for example) how to manage the supply-side of the illicit drug market. No one gets a free pass. But when I prioritize resources in going after drug-selling organizations, I'm not so interested in which organization sells the most grams of heroin in a given week. I care about that, but that's not the most important thing.

I want each organization to understand that if anyone affiliated with them shoots someone, if anyone hires juveniles for street selling, if anyone intimidates the neighbors, or is otherwise an especially bad actor, the entire group will be held accountable. If these organizations get the message that violence is bad for business, I believe this will change who they hire, who in the organization is asked to be armed or to carry out violence, how they deal with disputes with other criminal organizations.

There's suggestive but hardly definitive evidence that such approaches are helpful. High Point, North Carolina, is the paradigmatic example of where such drug enforcement strategies worked pretty well. But the city of High Point is maybe the size of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's not clear how such strategies can be translated to (say) Englewood or East Garfield Park here in Chicago.

Our new police superintendent Garry McCarthy iscognizant of these issues and is pursuing some promising approaches. Many people around the country are examining novel strategies such as those developed by David Kennedy. There's no magic bullet, but it seems to me that the quality of policing is getting better over time, and that law enforcement is taking a more discriminating approach that is more focused on evidence-based strategies to curb violence.

So let's zoom out from Chicago and talk about national policy. One of the things I've seen reported that amazed me, and a lot of other folks, was that the CDC was effectively barred by law from doing research on guns and their effects because such information could be construed as aiding gun control, or some such. Obama recently loosened some of the restrictions around research. Will that change anything? After reading this piece by Brad Plumer at Wonkblog, I'm left skeptical. Can you talk some about the constraints around gun violence research?

This isn't a cure-all. But loosening the constraints on research would help. The chilling effects of congressional meddling also goes beyond the letter of the law.

At times, policymakers and figures in the executive branch and in the public-health community have done the NRA's work for it. We've allowed second-amendment absolutists to intimidate everyone else. Researchers and public health officials saw what happened to Art Kellerman. They saw the difficulties that CDC has faced in getting pertinent research funded. Many people decided it would be easier to pick different fights.

The specific Congressional language says the following:

None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.

Pretty much the same language was added to the NIH budget and related health agencies.

We should take Congress's words pretty literally here. In my book, researching where crime guns come from is not promoting gun control. Conducting a randomized trial of different interventions to deter straw purchasers or to prevent gun suicide among veterans is not "advocating or promoting" gun control. Clarifying the descriptive epidemiology of real and alleged defensive use of weapons isn't advocating or promoting gun control, either. We shouldn't internalize a defensive "but what would somebody say" mentality in approaching these issues. I hope President Obama's executive orders give us greater backbone in this area.

Here's another example. Some very useful economic studies of discrimination employ random audit studies. Researchers send potential employers carefully tuned resumes of two classes of applicant. All applicants have the same formal qualifications, but one group is signaled to be African American. One can then examine whether that group is less likely to be invited for an interview. In similar fashion, well-designed audit studies could be very useful in examining the integrity of licensed or unlicensed gun dealers, and in answering other questions about underground gun markets.

Increasing the research dollars would be helpful, particularly in conducting rigorous intervention research. That's often where the research will have the biggest payoff. We've chipped away at so many causes of death and injury in America by methodically identifying and pursuing evidence-based interventions. That's true of lung cancer, sudden infant death syndrome, motor vehicle accidents, and more.

We've made less progress in firearms deaths. When one considers the tens of thousands of Americans who die every year from firearms, the CDC's budget for firearm safety and research is pathetically low.

Where does the Crime Lab stand in terms of other centers of gun violence research around the country? Some of the questions which we can't seem to answer look pretty basic -- "What percentage of gun owners even commit crimes?" for instance. Is this going to change?

These questions are indeed pretty basic, and pretty politicized. By the way, our ignorance about guns is not so unusual. Particularly in matters of intimate or stigmatized behaviors, we in the public health community often lack good answers to embarrassingly simple questions. If you ask: "How many Americans regularly inject heroin?" we're pretty uncertain. If you ask: "How many men have sex at least once per month with other men?" we're uncertain there, too. We don't always need to know these answers. We need to know enough so we can design rigorous intervention trials to see what is helpful to protect men and women in these key at-risk populations.

In gun policy, Congress creates maddening obstacles to researchers who seek to support police, judges, and prosecutors with basic law enforcement tasks. ATF's travails are also related. We mention some of those in the researchers' letter. The agency faces some truly strange restrictions on its ability to perform what we in public health would consider basic shoe-leather epidemiology in collecting and disseminating computerized data regarding crime guns or gun dealers who may be contributing to the problem. ATF needs more field agents. It needs a permanent director. It needs the same political and budgetary support we provide to the FBI for its critical law enforcement mission.

I want to come back to something else for a moment. You asked why Chicago is doing worse than L.A. or New York. As I mentioned, we're not doing worse than many other cities -- Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, many others. It's not Dodge City here, despite the tone of much recent coverage. Yet we are doing worse than the two cities with which we are most often compared.

No one has a definitive answer here. I would point to a few factors. First, many Midwestern cities have been hit harder by the financial crisis and the Great Recession than New York and L.A. have. New York is a much wealthier city with more extensive public services. As I mentioned, New York is certainly ahead of us in getting a handle on illegal guns.

Chicago also has a particularly nasty history of poverty and segregation in the city's south and west sides, where so many of the homicides among young African-American men and women are occurring. That history is exemplified by high-rise public housing developments such as Robert Taylor Homes. The buildings are gone, but we are still living with that.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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