Donald Trump has become a big fan of citing Chicago gun violence as an example of how crime in America is getting out of control. In doing this, he typically pins the blame on President Barack Obama. "In the president’s hometown of Chicago, more than 2,000 people have been the victim of shootings this year alone," Trump said at the Republican convention. "And almost 4,000 have been killed in the Chicago area since he took office."
But Trump should perhaps consider also pointing his finger at another person: his running mate.
As governor of Indiana, Mike Pence has overseen a state with fairly loose gun laws. The state currently ranks 16th of 50 for "Best States for Gun Owners" in Guns and Ammo’s ranking, which evaluates states based on how lax their policies are. Pence has further loosened the state’s already weak gun laws — legalizing the ownership of sawed-off shotguns, approving measures that let people with concealed carry permits keep their guns in cars while parked in school parking lots, and streamlining the process of buying certain firearms in the state.
What does this have to do with gun violence in Chicago? Indiana’s laws don’t simply make guns easier to obtain for people who live there. Multiple studies have shown that nearly one in five of the guns used in crimes in Chicago — where strict laws make it much harder to legally buy firearms — come from Pence’s state.
It’s not just Indiana, though. A patchwork of loose state laws makes it easy for just about anyone in America to buy firearms, no matter where they live.
How Indiana’s lax gun laws contribute to Chicago’s gun problem
Chicago — which has a murder rate of 15.1 per 100,000 people, compared with the 4.5 national rate — and Illinois have fairly tough local and state gun laws. You need to present a Firearm Owner Identification card to buy a gun, pass a background check, and abide by a waiting period of up to three days before you return to a store to purchase the weapon. Firearm owners must report if a gun is sold, lost, or stolen. Assault weapons are also wholly banned in Chicago — although handguns aren’t, due to recent Supreme Court decisions.
But neighboring states’ gun laws aren’t nearly as tough. Most crucially, Indiana does not require a background check for purchases between two private individuals — including those at gun shows and who meet through the internet — allowing even those with a criminal record to buy a firearm without passing a background check or even paperwork recording the sale.
The result: Someone from Chicago can drive across the border — to Indiana or to other places with lax gun laws — and buy a gun without any of the big legal hurdles he would face at home, particularly a background check or paperwork recording the sale. Then that person can resell or give guns to others in Chicago or keep them, leaving no paper trail behind. (This is illegal trafficking under federal law, but Indiana’s lax laws and enforcement — particularly the lack of a paper trail — make it impossible to catch until a gun is used in a crime.)
"We have a national gun market," said Harold Pollack, co-director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab. "That makes it very difficult for any one specific jurisdiction to effectively regulate some of the ways that we know dangerous people get ahold of guns. The Chicago-Indiana connection exemplifies the problem."
"It is a short car ride or, from my house, a bicycle ride to the Indiana border," Pollack added. "That is a challenge."
Chicago’s criminals take advantage of this. According to a report from the Chicago Police Department, 60 percent of the guns in crime scenes that were recovered and traced between 2009 and 2013 came from outside the state. About 19 percent came from Indiana — making it the most common state of origin for guns besides Illinois. The report also concluded that "Chicago’s violence problem is directly linked to the number of illegal guns available in the City."
The report stated:
It should come as no surprise that the states with the most permissive gun laws are the states that export crime guns at the highest rates.
Indiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Virginia export 31, 50, 46, 34, 33, and 32 handguns per 100,000 residents. By contrast, California and New York, which have much tougher gun laws, export approximately 5 and 2 handguns per 100,000 residents.
The report went on to note that of course a large number of firearms do come from the Chicago area. But the problem still largely lies outside the city of Chicago: Just four dealers near but outside the city — in Riverdale, Illinois; Lyons, Illinois; Lincolnwood, Illinois; and Gary, Indiana — sold 20 percent of the guns found in Chicago crime scenes.
"One wouldn’t want to overstate any one particular boundary in this mosaic," Pollack argued. "But we do know from analyses of trace data that the guns in gang-related crimes in Chicago are more likely to come from Indiana than other types of guns that the police recover [and are] connected to crime."
A 2015 study, co-authored by Pollack, found guns used by gang members were more likely than other guns to come from outside of Illinois: 65.6 percent of gang guns came from outside the state, and 51.1 percent of non-gang guns did. And 23.9 percent of gang guns came from Indiana in particular, while 17.2 percent of non-gang guns did. (Another study co-authored by Pollack also found Cook County gang members rarely get guns by stealing, instead buying them or trading for them — often through interstate networks set up by their gangs.)
Asked about this issue in January, Pence’s office pointed Al Jazeera America to a tweet from Pence: "Second Amendment unambiguously affirms the right to keep and bear arms. I will continue to support the Constitutional rights of Hoosiers."
More guns mean more gun violence
Research has consistently shown that more guns mean more gun violence. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also suicides, domestic violence, and violence against police. To deal with those problems, America will have to make guns less accessible as well as likely reduce the number of guns in the US.
This doesn’t mean that guns are the only contributor to gun violence in Chicago. There are other issues, including poverty, urbanization, drug-related violence, alcohol consumption, and a fairly low homicide solve rate. But the research suggests guns are a huge factor.
For example, a 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
Yet Chicago has struggled to clamp down on its gun problem, despite fairly strict gun laws, largely thanks to the limits of its borders. And the city’s struggles speak to a big reason that America’s gun laws are so weak.
America’s patchwork of state-by-state gun laws makes its gun problem worse
In response to mass shootings and other gun violence in the past several years, some cities and states have tried to pass new restrictions on guns. Chicago has led the charge on this front, implementing some of the stricter gun laws in the country.
But Chicago’s experience shows the limits of these local or state gun laws. Since it’s so easy to travel from city to city and state to state, someone who wants to buy a gun in Chicago can simply go over to other parts of Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, or other states with lax gun laws to bypass any of the restrictions.
New York state has dealt with a similar problem: According to federal data, 30 percent of traced guns recovered in New York come from in state. The rest come from other states — most prominently Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Florida, all of which have much weaker gun laws than New York. In the past, this gun shipment route from the South to New York has earned the name "the Iron Pipeline."
This isn't even just a domestic problem. Other federal data suggests that most of the guns used in crimes in Mexico, which has strict gun laws, can be traced back to the US, which has generally weaker gun laws.
All of this shows why strict local or state gun laws won’t be effective at controlling guns unless states cooperate in setting a national floor for gun restrictions or the federal government sets standards that apply to every single state in the country — such as universal background checks. Until that happens, people can continue to cross borders to buy firearms — and states like Pence’s Indiana will make it easy.