Although I recently wrote about the need to think beyond “good guys” and “bad guys,” I don’t mean to say that these labels are meaningless. For example, individuals who are actively involved in criminal activity are clearly bad guys. If those bad guys also have guns, bad things are likely to happen.
Indeed, as James Wright has observed (following James Q. Wilson), “most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place” (“Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America,” p. 66).
So, why do bad guys have guns? A simple and straightforward answer would be “to do bad things.” But the long tradition in the social sciences of studying illegal gun ownership suggests a somewhat different response. The 6th of Wright’s “Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America” is: “The bad guys inhabit a violent world; a gun often makes a life-or-death difference to them.” So when you ask felons why they have guns, “themes of self-defense, protection, and survival dominate the responses” (p. 66).
Wright published his observations in 1995, over 20 years ago. A newly published study of active criminal offenders in in Chicago (many in high violence neighborhoods) highlights how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Michael Sierra-Arevalo’s “Legal Cynicism and Protective Gun Ownership among Active Offenders in Chicago” finds that self-defense is overwhelmingly the top reason given by these “bad guys” for acquiring a gun: 83%, compared to just 3% who acquired them as a gift and 3% for crime.
Wright previously argued: “Very few of the bad guys say they acquire or carry guns for offensive or criminal purposes, although that is obviously how many of them get used.” Check.
From this Wright concludes: “Thus the bad guys are highly motivated gun consumers who will not be easily dissuaded from possessing, carrying, and using guns.” Check.
Sierra-Arevalo draws some different conclusions. He suggests that greater trust in the police could reduce the likelihood that active criminal offenders would get firearms because they would be more likely to call the police for protection than “to engage in violent, extralegal ‘self-help’ with a firearm.” I’m not so sure. Even if they were not as cynical about the legal system, would an active criminal offender actually invite the police into their business? I would think not, but I am interested to know of other research that suggest they might.
One thing we can be certain of: Nothing in Sierra-Arevalo’s work suggests that Wright was wrong in concluding that “the bad guys have to be disarmed on the street if the rates of gun violence are to decline, and that implies a range of intervention strategies far removed from what gun control advocates have recently urged on the American population” (p. 66).
H/T The Trace