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.

Bill Harshaw

For white collar crime, how about differences according to the size of the employer. Ripping off Wal-mart for $500 worth of goods might seem less serious than ripping off the neighborhood drugstore. Or government versus private employer.

The problem in a study might be to find comparability--I'd expect someone who embezzles $10,000 is seen as a less serious criminal than someone who gets $10,000 by robbery.


What would be the comparison with places like the UK where gun use is comparatively rare (but increasing) and unliscensed possession of a gun is itself a crime?

Isn't this essentially a backdoor way of criminalising gun use?


I am a criminal judge in Germany and therefore I am a little surprised by your posting since differentiating sentences depending on whether a gun was carried/used in the crime is very much in use over here. It is actually spelled out in the criminal code. Therefore it never occured to me that other people might find this an odd concept.

For example if you rob somebody in Germany you get a minimum sentence of six month in jail.

If you carry a a wepon, i.e. a gun, while robbing somebody - even if you don't use it - you get a minimum of three years.

If you use a weapon/gun while robbing somebody you get a minimum of five years.

Similar rules apply to theft, rape or assault. The rationale behind it is (simplified) that the abstract danger of grave results is increased greatly as soon as a gun is involved.

One big difference to the U.S. is of course that gun use is much less common. So if you use a gun in your crime, it usually means that you have a lot more criminal energy than the standard perpetrator.

That much as food for thought. I am not saying our system is better. I am just surprised that so far there does not seem to be anything like it in American law.

Regards, Dante


Michael Vanderdonk

One question I've had rolling around in my brain for some time is:

What are other ways (other than longer sentences, or leniency) to encourage good bad behaviour. Ie, if you are going to rob someone, don't use a gun. If you are going to sell drugs, have some quality control.


Dante, (#23) the Illinois Criminal Code is actually quite similar to what you describe for Germany in how it treats gun use in a crime. It's not the just the cops being lenient on nongun users, it's the Code being hard on users.

Bill M.

Regarding the 'red light' district for drugs -- shown on The Wire.

In Vancouver, B.C. there is a district like this. It is often described by one of its main intersections, Main and Hastings. It is an area in which the police 'tolerate' drug use to a greater degree than other neighbourhoods in the city. There is a supervised safe injection site there and many social service agencies attempting to serve the community of illegal drug users. The shorthand name for this approach is 'harm reduction'. There is a clearly stated, explicit attempt to reduce the harm that drug users do themselves. What is unstated is that it reduces the 'harm' that is caused in having drug users scattered thru the city. I expect that this area was created by selective policing -- a variable response from the officers on the street depending on where the drug user was. As far as I know, the police department has never stated that this was and is their policy.

From the middle '80s to the late '90s I lived a 10 - 15 minute walk from this area. During that time there was a marked decrease in the number of people who appeared to be regular drug users that I saw in my neighbourhood.


Stephen M (Ethesis)

"the creation of a red-light district for drug trafficking" -- I remember living in another town when a Justice of the Peace got a news crew to report on the district of that sort that seemed to have been created around the corner from her.

On the crimes with and without guns.

Gun usage is an enhancement. Generally, the enhancement only gets kicked in if you try it rather than plea bargain it (and note to German judges, in the U.S. all of the plea bargain negotiations take place outside of the courtroom without the judge watching).

A reduction for a lack of a gun is something to kick in on the other end.

Interesting application of an informal modification to the informal application of the formal rules.


Being more lenient on perpetrators without guns makes sense. There is a higher risk for perps with guns to do more societal damage over time because a percentage of the time innocent people will get shot.


The hardest part about science is finding the right questions to ask. So why is the public supposed to come up with your questions, when other economists have to figure them out for themselves? Do your own work!

Kevin P.

What was it like to work with anti-gun researchers like Cook and Ludwig?


@daniel: purely anecdotal but i have noticed when reading about people getting busted for penny-ante stock hucksterism that they tend to have been tapped for them before. i dont know if that falls under your idea of white-collar recidivism

Angela Lee

The alternatives; machetes, saws, hammers, screwdrivers, arrows, and whatever else the offender can get his/her hands on. If a criminal has decided to cause harm, why will they not cause just as much without a gun?

The authorities are missing the point. We can't fix this, why? "... they believed that it was impossible to get rid of crime altogether in poor communities." Instead, we are striking deals with the criminals and gang bangers or whatever else they're labeled as with sentencing. People live up to their expectations!
In order for there to be a top, there has to be a bottom.
A utopia does not exist because of the selfish, affluent people who do not wish to give up their position of control.
Yes, and raising taxes is despised while lowering them and borrowing is alright. Why is America in the state it is in now? And those of you who think America is in a superior state, you're blind.



White collar crime already has "tolerance zones" - offshore jurisdictions where most large corporations channel deals to avoid (not evade, note) tax. Offshore havens were certainly used by Enron, and without reading the Gladwell article (yet), I'm guessing that the executives' exploitation of such loopholes is at least in part a justification of their lack of criminality. The difference with tolerance zones for drugs or prostitution is that rather than denying the government revenues and increasing the burden on "ordinary" taxpayers, they would limit exposure to anti-social activity and potentially lower the costs to the taxpayer of maintaining a decent society for the majority.


Using leniency as a carrot for reduced gun use is logical, but I can think of two contextual factors that could limit its effect on improving public safety. Law enforcement personnel would be the ideal source to comment on these for the region in which they work.

1. Who is responsible for the majority of gun violence and what are their alternatives for meting out whatever punishment they seek for their victim? Here I think random violence would have a better chance at being reduced through leniency than acts carried out by the "muscle" of criminal organizations. The latter group has a financial incentive to weigh against risk and may have either a real or perceived invincibility with law enforcement. Alternative methods of violence (with similar results) may be more accessible for this group and could limit the effectiveness of this policy if they are the principal source of violence.

2. How will politicians/the community react? If the policy doesn't have backing it may be rendered ineffective.


Jesse Simms

I don't know if "no fraud" and "Enron" really belong in the same sentence, but I do think that Gladwell makes some good points. Yet his arguments left me a bit angry. I mean when the actual federal laws are examined and interpreted by lawyers making 300-500$ an hour, and the purposfully labrynthine accounts are examined they might have not commited the exact fraud for which they were charged. But this is similar to the arguement mob bosses have used until they ran up against RICO laws (Well I didn't pull the trigger or ever actaully say kill that guy).Yet we know in both cases that these men of extreme power manipulated their situation to gain what the wanted even to the extreme detriment of others. The Enron CEO's knew they were up to their eyes in debt and they knew that counting future profits as actual income had the potential to financially sink a lot of people; yet, they forged ahead and took out risky loans, while they smiled to their shareholders and said we are making this much money and if you don't believe us here is 10,000 pages of financial records, prove us wrong. So while Gladwell has a point in that they probably didn't actually commit the SPECIFIC crimes for which they were charged, he misses the the broader point, in that these were not trumped up charges, these were just the easiest ones to gain convictions with. Enron purposfully entered into convoluted deals in order to hide the fact that their company was failing (I don't believe for a second that they didn't know that their company was in deep trouble and really believed in all their illusional profit). And besides, they clearly gamed and price-fixed in California during those rolling blackouts. And, in the end Lay died before sentencing and got to keep his estate and Skilling is in Jail at a former college campus sans bars. I'd say they got off easy.



If police had it their way, would all (or some) drugs be legalized? and if not, why not?


I tend to agree that leniency towards crimes committed without weapons could be actually in the police's own interest. Any way you could come up with some question to test this in your survey?


I believe the lesser penalty for not carrying a gun can be processed like this:
Because anyone can get a gun if they really want to, the petty criminal in this case has opted out of carrying a gun. Intentionally or not, he has greatly reduced the likelihood of a fatality during criminal activity. An unarmed criminal would be less likely to put themselves in a position where violence would be an outcome, since being unarmed they are at a greater risk of being on the losing end of the encounter.
Either way, there has been a significant deterrent effect in Richmond, VA (where I live) using Project Exile, where Federal all applicable laws were used to hit "illegal" gun toters with 5-year Federal prison sentences (that means, to my understanding, no parole, and no close-by prison where your family can visit).


"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?"

I think the leniency for white collar crime comes into play more in terms of leniency for cooperation with prosecutors. A lot of white collar crime is by its nature extremely hard to uncover without the cooperation of insiders (I know white collar crime is an extremely broad category, but for the purposes of this discussion I am talking about more of the high-end securities fraud; i.e. Enron, WorldCom, and the like). Meticulously examining thousands of pages of financial documents is a huge drain on prosecutorial resources. Thus, offering a more lenient sentence for the cooperation of a defendant allows the prosecution to get a clear picture of the entire fraud without having to piece it together from mountains of documents. The end result is time and money is saved that can be used to catch other crime.

I tend to subscribe to the deterrent theory of punishment and from that standpoint I really don't see much problem with these kind of prosecutorial tactics. From a specific deterrent standpoint, I don't think there is much of a problem because I wouldn't think there would be a whole lot of recidivism in white collar crime (again, thinking more high-end securities fraud). I'm pretty sure there are SEC regulations that keep people with a history of fraud from being in a position do it again. Even without those rules, it would seem the negative reputation one gains from being wrapped up in fraud would keep them from being hired elsewhere.

And I still think there is a strong general deterrent because the people that refuse to cooperate (or sometimes simply the last person to try to cooperate) end up getting relatively stiff sentences, and those are the ones that end up in the newspaper.

Sorry for the long post, but I guess one question I would have is whether the do see much recidivism in white collar crime? Maybe not securities fraud, but with some of the more garden variety fraudsters.



Do you ever wonder what right you have as police officers to tell another adult he cannot smoke pot, crack etc..?

The same goes for other vice crimes like gambling and prostitution?