A close look at one gun-sales case raises questions of whether authorities are dismantling gun networks or effectively helping to set them up. “You’re going after someone and purposely trying to entice them into doing a felony,” says law prof. Katharine Tinto.
Amid Chicago’s ongoing epidemic of gun violence, with 494 fatal shootings and 2,866 people shot this year through September, the availability of guns has been blamed as a root cause and become a defining public safety issue. Chicago police say they’ve seized nearly 7,000 illegal firearms this year, and federal authorities have stepped up efforts to take down dealers, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, with ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ. Most of the guns police seize come from Indiana and other states where firearms laws are more lax, police and researchers have found. After they were purchased legally, most were sold, loaned or stolen. Typically, individuals or small groups are involved in the dealing, not organized trafficking rings, experts say. Unlike the drug trade — often dominated by powerful cartels or gangs — illegal gun markets operate more like the way teenagers get beer, “where every adult is potentially a source,” said Duke University criminologist Philip Cook, a researcher at the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
Under pressure to respond to the violence, law enforcement has focused on making examples of people caught selling, buying or possessing guns. Authorities acknowledge that these cases do little to stem the flow of guns into the city. An examination of one gun-sales case shows how authorities target mostly street-level offenders, sometimes enticing them with outsize payoffs. Critics say their techniques raise questions of whether they are dismantling gun networks or effectively helping to set them up. “You have this specter of whether it’s creating crime, which is troubling to a lot of people,” said law Prof. Katharine Tinto of the University of California Irvine, who has studied the investigative tactics of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “It’s not as if you’re trying to get someone you know is a violent gun offender. You’re going after someone and purposely trying to entice them into doing a felony.”