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.


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


What specifically is wrong with the Gladwell article?

I'm not especially tied to his findings, but they certainly seem reasonable.

B. Riley


It's not that white collar criminals are better at avoiding capture. It's that the bigger the theft, or the "take" from a crime, the more likely the perpetrators will get away with it.

See Bear Stearns, Global Crossing, Social Security, etc. . .

Fred Flintstone

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

— Posted by Mercutio.Mont

I am a big fan of Gladwell and his writting, but this was one of stupidest, poorly researched articles he has ever written.


I have to object here to the premise. What Venkatesh is talking about is not "toleration" of crime (as in The Wire) but simply a difference in the severity of punishment for crimes committed with a gun. Unless I misunderstand him, cops who catch a burglar don't just let him go; they arrest and prosecute him. But if he was carrying a gun, he gets a longer/tougher sentence than if he was unarmed.


"And with this redlight district BS, what about the people who have to live there? How fair is that to the other people who live there to do so with no sustantial knowledge that the police are allowing drug dealers in their neighborhood."

On the Wire at least, they chose set the redlight district up in an area where no one lives.

In most of the older cities I've been in there are whole blocks where no one lives. In Philly I can think of a some "brownfield" sites that would be perfect.


Is it time to give up the war on drugs?

If drugs were legalized, do police officials believe violence would drop? Would the reduction be mitigated by other societal ills?

Would the inner city be safer if more citizens carried concealed weapons?

Does police corruption escalate problems in high crime areas, given the "No Snitch" trend we've seen recently in Gangsta Rap. Is it hurting rapport with citizens whom may be good allies in high crime areas? Are there areas in the US where tensions between citizens and police are at a level where something like the LA riots may happen again?


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?

Matt G

There are gun-enhancement analogs in white collar crime. A sentence in a non-violent crime can be lengthened if, among other things, a defendant abused a position of trust or used a special skill or sophisticated means to commit her offense.

Additionally, the driving factor behind the length of most white-collar sentences is the amount of "loss" to the victim. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines includes a chart that advises courts to punish a $10K fraudster less harshly than a $100K fraudster.

This doesn't seem different, in philosophy, to augmented punishment for gun crimes.


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.



"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.

B K Ray

I often wonder about the 'hustler' phenomenon and the impact that has on crime in a given area.

Just to give a picture of what I am talking about, we will deal with the 'Loose Squares" situation.

For all sorts of reasons, a pack of cigarettes will cost about $8 if purchased in Chicago. An unintended consequence of this rise in the price of cigarettes is the sale of 'loose square' at a cost of about 2 cigarettes for a dollar. What happens is that people eithe steal cigarettes or go to Indiana and purchase them at about $4 a pack and sell them in sets of two or a pack for $5. it is a hustle.

When the police cameras went up, the sellers left. But then they slowly began to trickle back as they saw that the cameras were simply sitting mute on a light pole and not causing any increase in police to that particular corner.

Soon the loose square sellers came back, followed by the nickel and dime dealers. WHen the nickel/dime bag dealers show up, at first it is just a hustle, but it soon becomes a gang thing as it becomes a little prosperous for the hustlers. And we all know where that winds up.

So I guess what I want to know is
1. If there is some known tipping point of petty non-gun crime that will introduce the necessity of guns to crime and what is the police position on that? Like do they ever feel the need to manage petty crime as it tends to swell quickly into non-petty crime?

2. And what about the amount of petty crime that feeds larger criminal activity? Most of the loose square sellers are drug buyers.

And with this redlight district BS, what about the people who have to live there? How fair is that to the other people who live there to do so with no sustantial knowledge that the police are allowing drug dealers in their neighborhood.


M Todd

There was a time when crime committed with a gun carried a larger sentence especially with burglary or home invasion.

Our gun control policies should be tied directly to crime not the energy wasted on trying to limit guns. If all guns became illegal the only people turning in their guns would be law abiding citizens, they are not the problem.

For example if robbery without a gun carried a sentence of 2 years, just up the sentence to 5 years with a gun. If the criminal uses the gun or any other weapon (knife, bat, or bow and arrow) up the sentence to 15 years. Now you have placed the gun in direct line with the action of crime and violence.

Same is true with neglect gun ownership, everything has its responsibility. If someone has a loaded gun unlocked that is accessible to children, they have put those children at risk, and their actions should be considered child endangering. I have no problems with everyone wishing to purchase a gun to have a required class in safety, the law, and firearms training. Just because it is a constitutional right does not mean it is not without responsibilities.

It would be nice to live in a world without guns or violence, but it just is not going to happen. What needs to happen to reduce the level of crime with guns is increase the sentencing for crimes with guns. The idea of limiting guns does not work, the cities with the most stringent gun regulations, have the highest gun violence rates. Why is it so hard to see this approach does not work.



why are the police so racist? why would you accept $23K a year to be a cop in New York?


What if it were phrased differently? Instead of a lighter sentence for criminals without guns, call for a harsher sentence for criminals with guns. All other things being equal, a gun could add, say, an extra 20% to the jail time.

Steven Peters

For white collar crime, would a Robin Hood approach to white collar crime or identity theft be analogous to "Do it without your gun?" Ie. give a reduced sentence as long as the targets of the crime are rich and some of the money is distributed to the poor? It provides a reduced sentence for targeting the crime away from those who could least afford it.


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:




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


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


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.