“Not Going To Change One Thing I Do”

Off-the-books gun sellers say Obama’s proposals will just boost their trade.

President Obama’s proposals deal with legal gun markets where assault-like rifles and high-capacity ammunition are sold, but not with the secondary gun market

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

How would gun and ammunition sellers react to President Obama’s proposals to combat gun violence? I decided to find about by asking people who operate out of the so-called “secondary gun market,” where those without federal licenses to distribute weapons ply their trade. About 40 percent of guns reach people via this off-the-books route, including many of the guns that reach young people.

I spoke to three gun sellers who work in and around Chicago. I was prepared for defensive reactions, given the 30-plus legislative recommendations and executive actions on the table. Instead, they were skeptical when I read them Obama’s proposals. One summed up the general sentiment: “Not going to change one thing I do, thank the Lord.”

That response makes sense when one looks closely at gun markets, which are a bit quirky. The three Chicago brokers I spoke with don’t own gun stores or sell over the Internet. They make their money in the illegal, secondary market in three ways: They sell guns directly; they find customers for suburban gun dealers, who pay them a finders’ fee, and who then sell the gun off the books; and they match sellers with gun buyers in alleyway gun shows. Ninety percent of these sales are handguns, as opposed to assault rifles and shotguns.

Obama’s proposals, by contrast, deal forcefully with legal gun markets where the assault or assault-like rifles and high-capacity ammunition are sold, but not with the secondary gun market, nor with the handgun trade. Consider a cornerstone of Obama’s plan: the bans on armor-piercing bullets and high-powered assault rifles, and limits on large magazines. These products mimic the weapons one finds in the military—and they grab headlines when they appear in tragedies like Columbine and Newton. But guns used in armed combat make up only a small part of what appears on American streets. Focusing on mass shootings and assault weapons doesn’t match up well with the current contours of common gun violence, which are rooted in new and second-hand handguns, sold among friends or via brokers, and likely to be fired in intra-personal conflicts, not premeditated, mass public shootings. As Bill Scher wrote in 2011, 6,000 homicides were caused by handguns while 300 were caused by rifles. A comprehensive gun policy would need to take on the illegal market for handguns. Obama’s proposals don’t address this at all.

The Chicago traders also operate outside the world of background checks, another cornerstone of Obama’s proposal. They are like a small cartel with their own self-imposed customs for denying guns to certain people—for example, they will turn down customers who seem unstable, and most of them never sell to children. In any given region, they know each other and replicate each other’s customs. In fact, counter intuitively, illegal gun traders are more cooperative than competitive: they generally respect one another’s territory, they will collaborate to keep out gangs and other newcomers, and if they don’t have your desired weapon, they’ll send you to a competitor. This creates a solidarity that’s hard to attack. Background checks at legitimate gun stores may only end up sending more customers to these illegal markets, unless we find ways to constrain them simultaneously. A far better approach would be (simultaneously) to support regional law enforcement initiatives, like FBI or ATF taskforces, which dismantle these trading networks.

In dismissing Obama’s proposals, the sellers exaggerated when they said nothing at all would change for them. In fact, they anticipated three ways in which their business might shift in the months ahead, none of which bode well for the public. First, they predicted a rising demand for “guns in pants”— small pistols and handguns that people want to hold while they travel. This is dangerous. Citizens walking around armed and in fear pose a risk, given that most have little training or experience. Even criminals and violent types understand that cops will go harder on them if they are holding a weapon, so they often leave them at home.

Second, expect stockpiling of ammunition. More people with handguns means rising demand for ammo, so illegal traders are buying up ammunition, to resell, as fast as they can.

Third, expect the marketplace to grow more violent: New intra-state gun-runners are challenging the old guard. That’s because background checks slow legal sales, which make the illegal marketplace hotter. Since demand is increasing, and people generally fear any kind of background check, they will drift to the secondary market. This means more sellers willing to cross state lines to fulfill orders of several dozen weapons, which is the amount that most brokers on the street purchase. Look for gun prices to rise, and for more friction as new players enter the scene to compete.

In offering these three predictions, the traders were thoughtful and realistic. They conceded that Obama’s proposals would probably slow down legal gun sales. But, from their perch, they see another world of weapons trading, one that the media has not given much attention or scrutiny. Unless gun policy tilts toward dealing with this informal sector, there won’t be much change on the horizon in the day-to-day conditions that many Americans face— not only in and around metropolitan areas with high gun violence rates, but also in small towns and rural communities where informal, off-the-books gun trading thrives.

Which lays bare the question: What might work to dismantle the secondary gun market? In the long run, Obama’s approach—go after the low-hanging fruit of assault weapons—may widen the door for future legal curbs on the sale of handguns. If that happened, then fewer guns would reach the off-the-books markets, eventually putting some these traders out of business. But this is far away, and in the shorter term, we should be building a national campaign to raise awareness in the places where many guns circulate—among youth at school, in social gatherings (at bars and clubs), and even in homes where showing off a weapon is an American tradition. Just as changing the discourse on alcohol helped reduce drunk-driving deaths, it is reasonable to assume that a similar victory might be won by changing the norms around the use of guns in interpersonal conflict. Stopping the sale of military-style weapons and ammunition aren’t enough to get us there.