Why Do Nearly One in Five Crime Guns in Chicago Originate at Just Four Gun Dealers?


Written by: Saurav Sarkar

“There’s probably only one gun store that’s located throughout the whole city of Chicago which is famous,” an inmate told Professor Phil Cook and his fellow researchers in one of their two new studies. “It’s Chuck’s Gun Store.”

Indeed, Chuck’s has been identified in multiple sources for two decades as a major supplier of crime guns. It is near or at the top of the 5% of gun dealers that supply 90% of the guns used in crime. How can so many guns from just a few gun shops end up in criminal hands?

After all, guns used in crime in the United States universally begin as legal guns, manufactured or imported by a federally licensed company or individual, and then are usually sold to the public by a federally licensed retailer after a Brady Background Check. Since they were instituted in 1994, Brady Background Checks have stopped more than 2.6 million dangerous people from acquiring guns.

[Source: Cook, et al. “Sources of guns to dangerous people: What we learn by asking them”, Preventive Medicine 79 (2015) 28-36)]

After the initial sale, however, tracking the trajectory of an eventual crime gun becomes dicey. Two important new studies on the supply of guns to dangerous people in the Chicagoland area highlight the complex paths that guns can take in making their way from a gun dealer to a dangerous person.

A survey by Cook et al. of 99 inmates in the Cook County Jail found that guns frequently circulate on the informal market or in arrangements involving the “sharing” or “borrowing” of guns among groups of people. Relatedly, a separate analysis by Cook et al. of the Chicago Police Department’s trace data linked to guns recovered from 2009 to 2013 found that many guns used by gang members are older guns that have been circulating for several years before being confiscated by the police.

Both studies indicate that direct purchases by prohibited people from a gun dealer are rare, but this is as we would expect, since a person prohibited from possessing a gun cannot pass a Brady Background Check and knows this. How, then, do guns make their way from the legal market to the illegal one? The main pathways for doing so are: straw purchases; trafficking, often from states with more lax gun laws; and off-the-books sales or inadequate security measures in the store that allow for theft.

Cook et al.’s analysis of trace data does not quantify the prevalence of straw purchasing, trafficking, and other illicit channels, but does leave open the possibility that many or most of the crime guns studied had been acquired through these means.

For example, off-duty Chicago police officer Thomas Wortham IV was shot and killed during an armed robbery in 2010 by a gang member who had obtained his gun from a trafficker. The trafficker had originally acquired the gun through a straw purchaser from Ed’s Pawn Shop in Byhalia, Mississippi.

Moreover, despite the convoluted pathways of crime guns that the two studies discussed here illustrate, the studies do not adequately explain why Chuck’s and certain other gun dealers’ names come up again and again in trace reports. Yet Cook, et al.’s analysis of trace data indicates that a single dealer supplies nearly 50% of new guns (recovered within two years) to gang members in Cook County.

This is the reason why Brady has drawn attention to the store through public protests and called for Chuck’s and all other gun dealers to adopt the Brady Code of Conduct. By taking the affirmative steps laid out in that document and following all applicable local, state, and federal laws, gun dealers like Chuck’s can dramatically reduce the likelihood that their guns end up in the hands of Chicago gang members and other dangerous people.

Studies Discussed

Back to Blog