How Easy Is it To Get A Gun? U of C Crime Lab Gets $1 Million to Find Out

By Sam Cholke on February 21, 2014 8:03am 

 Harold Pollack, one of the directors of the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, was the recipient of a $1 million award from the MacArthur Foundation Thursday.
Harold Pollack, one of the directors of the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, was the recipient of a $1 million award from the MacArthur Foundation Thursday.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — A group of researchers at the University of Chicago got $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation Thursday to pursue their interests — and they’re really interested in guns.

“How easy is it to get a gun?” asked Harold Pollack, the co-director of Crime Lab, a research organization at the university that studies crime and violence.

On Tuesday, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Pollack and his partner Jens Ludwig, both economists, the Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The award is the institutional equivalent of the “Genius Award” the foundation awards once a year to individuals.

Pollack and Ludwig can use the money how they like, and lately they’re very interested in how Chicago’s black market for guns works.

“There are a lot of people you would think have access to guns and really don’t,” Pollack said of 100 recent interviews with prisoners at Cook County jail arrested for gun crimes.

Other individuals, he said, appear to have incredibly easy access to guns and ammunition.

“We’re trying to understand what distinguishes these people,” Pollack said.

Considering how much Chicago talks about gun crime, very little academic research was done on the subject until a clique of Chicago academics including Pollack and Ludwig became interested, a group that later grew into Crime Lab.

Crime Lab has shown that some folk knowledge is spot on — almost all criminals acquire their guns illegally. More interesting is Crime Lab’s research that shows Mississippi is a major supplier to Chicago’s gun market — and some guns come from as far away as Guam.

“To me, one of the most striking things is how many gun offenders have been shot,” Pollack said.

He said he’s not entirely sure yet what that means, but it could give credence to the idea that fear is a common driver for both 2nd Amendment proponents and Chicago’s criminals.

“Self protection is a very powerful incentive for carriers of guns, and we have a lot of young people who are afraid of each other,” Pollack said.

He said the most satisfying work of Crime Lab was being able to prove to workers at Becoming a Man, which works with youths to try to control the impulse to escalate confrontations, that their work has reduced arrests for violent crimes by nearly half.

“They’d never had a chance to be validated for that, and that was a really valuable thing,” Pollack said.

Becoming a Man became the darling of the Obama administration and others after Crime Lab was able to use data to prove the effectiveness of the program. It's now expected to expand nationally.

“We’re really trying to translate data and basic science into actionable policies,” Pollack said.

The MacArthur Award of $1 million will go a long way toward whatever data Pollack, Ludwig and the other researchers at Crime Lab get interested in next.

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