Conservative Media Invert Study's Conclusion To Argue Against Stronger Gun Laws

Several conservative media outlets cited a recent study in the Journal of Preventive Medicine to conclude that gun laws do not effectively deter criminals from obtaining firearms, even though the study actually found that gun laws in Chicago make it harder for criminals to acquire firearms by increasing opportunity costs. The study's authors are now speaking out against media misrepresentations of their work.

Study That Investigated How Criminals Obtain Guns Finds Enforcement Of Gun Laws To Be A Deterrent

Study Interviewed Incarcerated Chicago Men On How They Obtained Firearms. A study appearing in the October 2015 edition of the Journal of Preventive Medicine shared the results of interviews with 99 “gun-involved, criminally active men living in greater Chicago” at the time of their arrest who were incarcerated for crimes, not all of which were gun-related. The study found that the men who had guns most often got them from someone they knew, and only rarely from a gun store or by stealing. The study found that Chicago police, who enforce local gun laws, have “a powerful influence on the nature of Chicago's underground gun market” by making it more difficult to procure and exchange weapons:

Many of our CCJ Survey respondents were convinced that the police placed a high priority on guns and posed enough of a threat to warrant caution in dealing with buyers or sellers whom they did not know or have reason to trust. There was also a remarkably widespread concern that police investigations would identify any guns that had been fired in a crime and use that evidence to arrest them if they happened to be in possession of the gun. In other words, 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 (Cook et al., 2007). It appears, then, that continued and even expanded law enforcement efforts could increase transactions costs in this underground market. [Journal of Preventive MedicineOctober 2015, p.35]

Study Participants Detailed Difficulties In Acquiring Firearms, Including Having To Travel To States With Weaker Gun Laws. A September 8 article from The Trace described the study's findings, noting that one of the men interviewed described how local gun traffickers sometimes go to states with weaker gun laws to obtain firearms for their Chicago buyers. Study author Phillip J. Cook told The Trace that he was “convinced that there would be even more shootings” in Chicago if not for tough city gun restrictions:

The interviews by the Cook team reveal that gun regulations have forced Chicago's criminals (particularly gang members) to search for out of state sources and create an elaborate network of personal contacts to transfer guns, out of fear of being caught by police. As one respondent stated: “Most people either go to the down-South states or go to Indiana” -- where gun laws are looser than Chicago's and Illinois' -- “to get guns, or people obtain gun licenses, go to the store and then resell.” Another respondent further expounded on the difficulties of obtaining firearms: “A lot of guys in the 'hood' don't have access -- a lot of networking stuff going on.” These findings paired with time-to-crime data demonstrate that Chicago's gun laws are influencing the behavior of criminals and imposing greater transaction burdens on the illicit market. Gun violence continues to rock the city, but it's fueled by the supply of guns from lightly regulated markets that undermine local barriers.

As Cook tells The Trace, if guns and ammunition “were more readily available in Chicago, and more of the dangerous youths had ready access at low prices, I'm convinced that there would be even more shootings.” [The Trace, 9/8/15]

Right-Wing Outlets Misrepresented Study's Conclusions To Attack Calls For Stronger Gun Laws

NRA News Host Cam Edwards: Study “Gives Chicago Politicians A Chance To Do Something Other Than Bloviate About The Need For More Gun Laws.” Edwards, who hosts a daily radio show for the NRA, suggested in his column for the NRA's web magazine, America's 1st Freedom, that the study offers evidence against new gun laws, even though the study came to no such conclusion:

No matter, though. Gun control has always been a go-to sound bite solution for Windy City politicians. If they aren't calling for a new local or state law, they're claiming that the reason crime is so bad in Chicago is because other states don't have gun laws that look like Chicago's ... you know, where the crime rate is sky high.

I know. It's confusing and it doesn't make a lot of sense. That's “gunsense” for you. But a new survey of individuals inside the Cook County Jail that found the vast majority of them aren't interested in following the gun laws that are on the books gives Chicago politicians a chance to do something other than bloviate about the need for more gun laws. Only two of the nearly 100 inmates interviewed bought their gun at a gun shop. The vast majority of these accused criminals got a gun from a family member, a friend or through theft. [America's 1st Freedom, 9/9/15]

NRA Lobbying Arm: “This Study Illustrates That Laws And Regulations Only Impact The Law-Abiding.” The NRA Institute for Legislative Action interpreted the study's finding that criminals obtain guns from people they know rather than gun stores to baselessly conclude gun laws only affect law-abiding citizens, misrepresenting the study's finding that Chicago gun laws actually do change criminal behavior:

Cook and colleagues also found that criminals do not often buy guns on the used market, as they have a fear of buying a gun from a source they do not know. Fear of police stings, or from being turned in by law-abiding gun owners leads them to obtain guns from sources they trust, most often, family, fellow gang members, and other criminals. They also found that criminals do not hold guns for a long period, fearing that a gun could be traced to a specific crime.

The findings were clear. Criminals do not engage in activities that would make them subject to any sort of a “universal” background check requirement or any of the other common proposals put forth by the anti-gun crowd. As usual, this study illustrates that laws and regulations only impact the law-abiding. [NRA-ILA, 9/4/15]

Breitbart News: Study Proves “Background Checks Place A Burden On Law-Abiding Citizens Which Criminals Easily Avoid.” Breitbart News writer AWR Hawkins used the study to attack the efficacy of background checks on preventing dangerous people from obtaining guns, falsely claiming that “background checks place a burden on law-abiding citizens which criminals easily avoid.” [Breitbart News, 8/30/15]

Townhall: Study Shows “More Gun Regulations To Prevent Legal Transfers Would Be A Waste Of Time.” Like other conservative outlets, Matt Vespa of Townhall misused the study's conclusions to baselessly attack further regulations at the point-of-sale for firearm purchases, claiming that they “would be a waste of time.” [Townhall, 9/6/15]

Hot Air: Study Indicates That Expanding Background Checks Would Have No Impact On Gun Violence. Jazz Shaw of Hot Air wrote, “Yet another study (which will doubtless receive no attention in the mainstream media) has given us a fairly good idea of the answer to that question. Criminals aren't buying their guns at Walmart, folks.” [Hot Air, 9/5/15]

Las Vegas Review-Journal: Study Means “Expanded Background Checks Will Do Nothing To Keep Such Criminals From Perpetrating Gun Violence.” In an editorial so erroneous the study's authors felt compelled to respond in writing, the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal used the study to attack the notion of expanded background checks on gun sales:

Regardless, as has been shown countless times, criminals are not going to follow any gun control law. Despite some of the nation's stiffest gun-ownership restrictions, Chicago has had a rash of gun deaths in recent years, so much so that researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago conducted a study to determine where the guns were coming from. As the Washington Free Beacon's Stephen Gutowski reported, the study -- to be published in the October edition of Preventive Medicine -- consisted of interviews with 99 inmates at Chicago's Cook County Jail who had illegally possessed a gun within six months of their incarceration. The study found that most criminals only acquired guns from people they knew and trusted -- almost exclusively from family, friends, fellow gang members, etc.

In other words, background checks do not deter criminals from obtaining weapons. Expanded background checks will do nothing to keep such criminals from perpetrating gun violence. [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 9/14/15]

To read more about the Las Vegas Review-Journal's promotion of falsehoods about background checks on gun sales, click here.

Study's Authors, And Others, Object To Media's Reverse Reading Of Study's Conclusion

Study Authors: Despite Media Characterization Of Research, “Our Research Indicates That Criminals Are Very Much Influenced By Existing Gun Laws.” After the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal claimed the study offered evidence against expanding background checks on gun sales, the authors of the study, Philip J. Cook, Susan T. Parker, and Harold Pollack responded in a letter to the editor, noting that the study made no such conclusion and cited prior research that background checks are “effective in saving lives”:

We appreciate the Las Vegas Review-Journal noting our research in an editorial on expanded gun background checks (“Background noise,” Sept. 15 Review-Journal). However, we would like to correct the record regarding what our Chicago offender interviews indicate for gun policy.

The editorial board concludes, “Regardless, as has been shown many times, criminals are not going to follow any gun control law.” This is plainly not the case -- by similar logic, there would be no reason to have any laws. We doubt the editorial board of this newspaper would take a stance against legal prohibitions of burglary, domestic violence or drunken driving, just because those prohibitions -- like regulations on gun transactions -- are sometimes violated.

In fact, our research indicates that criminals are very much influenced by existing gun laws. Background checks and other laws deter most offenders from purchasing guns from gun stores, despite the obvious advantages of doing so. Those who are determined to obtain a gun often attempt to do so by searching for someone they know personally who might have one for sale.

The Review-Journal editorial claims that the obvious conclusion from our study is that expanding background checks would have no effect on the criminal acquisition of guns. In fact, no such conclusion follows from our study, which was designed from the beginning to focus on those who, one way or another, had been successful in obtaining a gun. We know from other research that many offenders in Chicago are unable to obtain guns when they want one, in part because their social networks do not include people with guns for sale.

We agree with the editors that gun store background checks are not sufficient to combat gun violence. Requiring a background check for all gun sales would alter the incentives facing potential sources of guns to criminals. Other studies have found that such universal-check requirements are effective in saving lives -- not 100 percent effective, but effective enough to be worthwhile. [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 9/23/15]

Columbia Journalism Review: Media Coverage “Interpreted The Study's Conclusions To Mean The Opposite Of What Researchers Intended.” In a September 29 article, the Columbia Journalism Review described how many media outlets, including the National Rifle Association's media arm, botched their reporting and “interpreted the study's conclusions to mean the opposite of what researchers intended” (emphasis added):

A key takeaway, then, is that policing and regulations impact how the underground gun market functions. With more enforcement and the targeting of key intermediaries, researchers say, gun access to dangerous people can be even more constrained. In other words, regulations may not yet put a complete stop to illegal trade, but they do make it more difficult for guns to get in the wrong hands. But much of the media pick-up boiled the study down to the notion that universal background checks on gun purchasers don't work--a conclusion two researchers from the study emphatically deny. [Columbia Journalism Review, 9/29/15]