Do It Without Your Gun

I recently published a paper on urban gun markets with Philip J. Cook, Jens Ludwig, and Anthony A. Braga. I was sort of the odd man out.

The three researchers have been studying gun use in the United States for many years. I had access to gun sellers, prospective customers, ammunition dealers, and gun brokers who bring purchasers and sellers together.

One finding stood out for me: police officers are likely to be more lenient with perpetrators if they do not possess a gun in the course of committing a crime.

Particularly in inner city contexts, police sometimes have to make a trade off between preventing crime and limiting the consequences of bad behavior. For example — cops as well as prosecutors might ask for a lighter sentence if no gun was used.

Frustrated that they cannot prevent serious crime in such neighborhoods, police make these kinds of adjustments. Many hope that these accommodations will lower the rate of gun use, which can sharply worsen the outcomes in any criminal incident.

In the suburb of Irvine, California, where I grew up, this strategy would probably sound abhorrent to most residents (and perhaps many police officers). When I talked to low-income residents and police officers who live and work in New York and Chicago, I found no consensus on the issue.

Most police officers expressed support for this pragmatic strategy — i.e., prioritizing the reduction of gun-related violence — and only a small minority said it was not useful.

Residents’ views differed in an interesting way. Those who shared an organizational affiliation — e.g., pastors, block club presidents, school teachers, business persons — generally felt that the strategy was solid. They were also interested in reducing the impact of crime, because they believed that it was impossible to get rid of crime altogether in poor communities.

But the lay population felt strongly that preferential treatment for criminals who did not use guns was tantamount to permitting crime.

Viewers of the H.B.O. series The Wire may recall other such policing strategies. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the creation of a red-light district for drug trafficking — the rationale being that geographic restriction of the drug trade reduced its deleterious impact on the wider community.

I know a few high-ranking police officials as well as experienced beat cops and detectives. I thought it might be interesting to ask them about these tactics, as well as other such efforts that highlight the difficult decision police officials must make in the context of entrenched crime.

To offer some balance, I am going to request that they consider not only low-income, minority communities, but also white collar crime that involves an upper-class, predominantly white American constituency. In both contexts, I am curious about the ways in which police officials might tolerate some kinds of criminal behavior in order to attain some greater good — e.g., reduced harm to passers-by, limiting gang expansion and recruitment, use of criminals as confidential informants, etc.

Once again, I turn to Freakonomics readers to provide me with questions, suggestions, or examples that I can use in my discussion with these law enforcement personnel.

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  1. Stan says:

    Do police officials believe that leniency and diversion programs for first and/or minor offenses straightens offenders out, or simply signals social weakness?

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  2. Mercutio.Mont says:

    I’m interested in analogues within white collar crimes: White collar crimes seem to center around fraud and insider trading. A red light district for people who con granny out of her life savings? Leniency for those who only annihilate half of her principle?

    Also, what sort of white collar crime is perpetrated by affluent whites? In my own limited experience working in the justice system, it seems that virtually all white collar criminals are poor or at most lower middle class.

    It’s not that I’m trying to be particularly unhelpful, I just think that the stereotype of rich white collar criminals isn’t true; that most of the rich fellows found guilty or charged with crimes have had the charges trumped up against them for political reasons (Enron execs for example) and in any event the crimes are far to rare to really be analogous.

    Malcolm Gladwell article providing some evidence that there was no fraud at Enron:

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  3. Ben says:

    Speaking of The Wire, is police brutality as prevalent as that show makes it out to be?

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  4. JohnMcG says:

    Could there be some self-interest in play here for the police officers? A gun-toting criminal places the apprehending police officer in much more danger than one not wielding a weapon. It stands to reason that an officer would be more lenient to a suspect who does not put his life in jeopardy over one who does.

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  5. Ben says:


    I’m gonna guess that the rich white collar criminals are just better at avoiding being caught.

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  6. Chance says:

    “For example — cops as well as prosecutors might ask for a lighter sentence if no gun was used.”

    Why should a cop have any say in the sentencing of a person whatsoever? Their job should be simply to relay the facts of the case as they witnessed. I would say that giving police a say in this matter is not a good idea.

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  7. RubyTues says:

    In my city there has been a recent surge in the number of property crimes. The police have been running a campaign to get the general citizenry to do their part to help prevent crime. One such program is to put little cards on cars explaining what the owner is doing right or wrong in terms of helping with said prevention. Twice I’ve gotten these cards on my Jeep with little “everything looks good thanks” on them. Once I even got a smiley face like my piano teacher used to put in my book when I actually practiced and could play what I was supposed to play. There are other little boxes on these cards that say things like “door unlocked” and something about visible high theft items like an MP3 player or GPS in the car.

    I get the point really and there are a couple of times I’ve been at the gym and been rather shocked to see convertibles with their tops down and a purse lying on the seat, but then again in a way isn’t this a bit like blaming the victim?

    I know this isn’t a perfect world and that although you should be able to leave a laptop in your unlocked car doing so would be kind of stupid but I’m not all that comfortable with the “asking for it” philosophy.

    What I also find rather disturbing is that it is common knowledge that the police are just too busy and have more important things to do than to investigate property crimes. My neighbor’s car was stolen and when he got it back there were things in the car that did not belong to him. He thought he was going to go all CSI and help the cops so he called and told them. Their reaction was, hey think of those things in your car as a gift. Oh right everyone could use an extra screw driver.

    I think of it this way, how many hardened criminals started out their life of crime as oh say an armed robber? Maybe if these petty property thefts were investigated and the proverbial perpetrators brought to justice it would cut down on more serious crimes.

    Sort of like breaking into cars in the mall parking lot is a gateway crime.

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  8. Brenda says:

    I wonder if domestic violence might be an issue that crosses class. Do police/prosecutors deal with domestic violence claims differently if there are children involved in the relationship? If the abuser has access to weapons? If the abused party is trapped in the situation because they have nowhere to go? How do police deal with situations differently when there is paparrazi/news coverage versus when it’s just a rich person?

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