What do typical American gun owners have in common with people on probation or parole for committing a violent crime? Both groups are arming themselves in self defense, new research indicates.

As The Trace and the Guardian reported last week, a majority of gun owners now say that protection from other people is a primary reason for keeping a firearm, replacing hunting as the most prevalent motivation. A new analysis of a survey of criminal offenders in Chicago shows that members of that population say they are obtaining guns for the same reason — to shoot, if necessary, other people who would do them harm.

To complete the analysis, Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Yale University, examined data from a 2006 survey of 141 people who were on probation or parole for a violent crime. Most were black men from high-crime neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides.

In an interview, Sierra-Arévalo tells The Trace he wanted to see if there was a link between what academics call “legal cynicism” and protective gun ownership. Legal cynicism is a broad term that reflects a view that the criminal justice system and all of its moving parts, from judges to criminal laws to police officers, are unfair and ineffectual. The cynicism is strongest in poor, minority neighborhoods where rates of violent crime are high.

Sierra-Arévalo’s analysis focused on how offenders’ perceptions of police officers, in particular, influenced their choice to own a gun. He concludes that there is a strong link between the criminal offenders’ lack of faith in law enforcement to protect them from violence, and their high rates of gun ownership.

In this pool, 83 percent said they got their most recent gun for protection. (While it is possible in some circumstances to obtain a gun permit in Chicago, most criminal offenses are disqualifying).

“These are precisely the communities that experience the highest rates of gun violence,” Sierra-Arévalo says. “If you want to reduce ex-felons’ access to guns, one way to do that is to give them another option and help them feel comfortable calling the police. That could reduce the number of homicides in violent networks, [and] also reduce shootings and bystander injuries in general.”


Sierra-Arévalo suggests the attitudes of people in the survey reflect how high-crime neighborhoods are policed. A combination of over-policing for minor infractions, under-policing for serious violent crimes, and police brutality breeds widespread mistrust of law enforcement.

In Chicago, the clearance rate — or solve rate — for murders has plummeted to about 20 percent. There is a shortage of police detectives, and the youngest and most experienced cops are disproportionately assigned to patrol the most dangerous neighborhoods.

One consequence of these failures to adequately police violent crime is that members of these communities often take matters into their own hands, instead of calling the police for help. They get guns to protect themselves from violent crime, or to retaliate when they think the system is incapable of serving justice.

The results of the analysis show that offenders with the most negative perceptions of the police were much more likely to own a gun, and to own a gun for self defense in particular, than criminals with more positive views of law enforcement. In fact, having a low opinion of police was a stronger predictor of protective gun ownership than having been a victim of a crime in the past, the study concluded.

Interestingly, violent offenders who claimed a gang affiliation were significantly less likely than other types of criminal offenders to own guns for protective purposes, Sierra-Arévalo found.

Sierra-Arévalo says that there are limitations to his analysis. The most obvious: that there are many interpretations of “self protection.” In saying that they own guns for this purpose, felons might say they feel like they are in danger because they operate criminal enterprises. People who live in high-crime areas might also consider the boost a gun gives to their social status as an integral part of self protection, he says.

But he says his results have a strong social policy implication.

“Some people say, ‘No, it’s not the negative perception of the police, it’s the fact that these people live in violent neighborhoods,’” Sierra-Arévalo tells The Trace. “But my research found that that’s not right.”

[Graphic: Francesca Mirabile. Photo: Getty]