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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.