Where Chicago Teenagers Get Their Guns

File: A display of guns seized by Chicago Police.
File: A display of guns seized by Chicago Police. Andrew Gill/WBEZ
File: A display of guns seized by Chicago Police.
File: A display of guns seized by Chicago Police. Andrew Gill/WBEZ

Where Chicago Teenagers Get Their Guns

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Standing before an array of confiscated guns at the 7th District police station in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood Monday, police superintendent Garry McCarthy said so far this year, police have taken nearly 1,100 guns citywide from people who shouldn’t have them.

The ocean of easily available guns affects nearly every corner of Englewood, including neighborhood schools such as Harper High. Harper lost eight current and former students to gun violence last year; 21 additional kids were shot.

These past two weeks, the radio program This American Life aired an up-close look at gun violence affecting Harper . WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton worked on the programs. In this story, she asks kids the question: How do you get a gun here in Chicago?

Linda Lutton: Can you all come in a little tighter?

Most of them are freshman, 15 years old. It was often hard at Harper to get kids to talk about how they felt about the violence in their neighborhood. But when it came to something concrete, like where a kid around here would get a gun, it was easy to get into a detailed conversation about dirty guns and clean guns and the prices of each. They said if it’s a cheap gun on the street, you have to be careful. It might have a murder on it.

Boy 1: It’ll usually have a murder or something on it.

And they know how clean guns, guns with no murders on them, end up on the street.

Boy 2: They got they gun cards. And then when they sell them, they just report them stolen— like a month later, reported stolen.

LL: OK, what’s the cheapest? Even if it’s a dirty gun with a murder on it, what’s the cheapest?

Boy 1: Like $100.

Boy 2: It depends on what kind of gun it is.

LL: $100. And what kind of gun would that be for $100?

Boy 2: Because you gotta trick some people. They would be like, give me $100 for a .22 caliber. Boy, I don’t even play with those. What, I’m going to give you $100? I’ll give you $25 for it.

The boys argue for a while over how much a .22 caliber handgun would be worth— $25, $40, $150, or if it’s worth anything at all since it’s not a big gun. And who are they getting the guns from?

LL: As a kid, how do you know where to go to?

Boy 3: I go to one of the guys.

Boy 4: That’s what I was going to say, too— one of the guys.

LL: What does one of the guys mean? What does that mean?

Boy 2: One of your friends.

Boy 4: Well, like for some people, like if you’re in a gang or something, you gonna automatically have that. So if you’ve got connections to a gang, then you gonna have it.

LL: So how do know who in the gang has the gun?

Boy 4: We know. We know.

Boy 1: I’ve actually made phone calls. If wanted a gun—

Boy 4: That’s what I’m saying, too.

Boy 1: I could make a phone call.

Of course, this isn’t the most satisfying answer to the question, where do you get your gun? To shrug and say, “from my friends,” it doesn’t explain how your friends get them. Guns arrive in the neighborhood through all the means you’ve probably heard of— straw purchasers, gun show loopholes.

The feds recently charged a college student with buying duffel bags full of guns at Indiana gun shows for sale on Chicago streets.

A University of Chicago crime lab analysis has shown that the biggest proportion of police-recovered guns, around 40%, are purchased legally just outside Chicago, in the suburbs or Indiana.

One of the police officers who works at Harper told me $40 or $50 would be a normal price around the neighborhood for a revolver. $100 will get you a semiautomatic. But talking to these kids, I realize they often can get a gun for nothing at all. They’re free. This kid got two guns from his brother.

Boy 4: When my brother got it, of course he gonna give to me. Because my brother, he went to jail for a charge. He’s still in there right now.

LL: For a gun charge?

Boy 4: Yeah. My brother got several guns, though. But the one that he got caught with, they got it. But he got several of them. So I’m going to look at them for him while he in there.

One kid says he was given a gun by fellow gang members who handed it to him, he says, for having certain rank in the gang. He was 14. Another boy who’s backed away from his gang, he moved out of Englewood, says he could still get a gun if he needed it for something, as long as he promised to bring it back.

Another boy says his mom has a gun, a legal gun. She keeps it in a box, he says.

Boy 3: I was 12 when I got my first gun. I was 12. I found it. I saw it. I found it.

He was near 67th Street, three blocks from Harper.

LL: Just in the middle of the day, you’re going to your grandma’s house. And you find a gun.

Boy 3: Yeah, it was 4 o’clock. And I walked through the alley because I had come up to my grandma’s backyard. And something just told me, look down. It was five, six houses down from my grandma.

Boy 5: People stash guns outside. They don’t want their guns in the house.

All the kids agree, if a gun’s in your house, the police can find it in a raid. So people stash them. This one was on the side of the garage.

Boy 3: It was on the side of the garage like somebody tried to throw it in there while they was running. But they missed or something. It was just laying, not on the garage, on the garbage. You know, the garbages in the alley? It was just laying next to it. And I just picked it up, brung it home.

The boy kept the gun for a while. Later, because he couldn’t figure out how to get any bullets for it and because, he says, he had no use for it, he gave it to a friend.

When I asked what type of gun it was, the boy said he was too little to know at the time. He only knew it was black. But now that he’s older, 15, he does know. It was a .45.

LL: So where do you keep a gun, if not at home? I’m still not clear on that.

Boy 4: Abandoned house, I’m going to say that.

LL: A what?

Boy 4: Abandoned house.

LL: What, like next door to you maybe or something?

Boy 4: Well, not next door to you. I could be like a block or something. But it can’t be that far.

LL: How do protect it, then? How do you know somebody’s not going to get in there and get it?

Boy 4: Because you hide it.

LL: Well, maybe I live on your block, too, and I’m—

Boy 4: Well, one of my guys, he had a banger. And he put it in an abandoned house. He put in the basement. And in the basement, they got a little vent. And just scooted it all the way back then just closed. And that’s it.

LL: So if he needs it, he’s got it.

Boy 4: Yeah.

LL: But it’s not on him. It’s not in his house.

Boy 3: You’re just close.

As you’d expect, some guns are more popular than others.

LL: Do young people want a certain type of gun?

Boy 3: A .30.

LL: What kind?

Boy 3: A .30, with a long clip— a clip like this out the gun.

He’s not talking about a specific gun but an accessory, a magazine that holds 30 rounds.

LL: You like those? Why?

Boy 3: They got the most shots. You can shoot forever. Let out 15. Run back to where you going. Somebody else come out and let out five more. There you go.

A lot of these student say they know kids who are only alive because the shooters have such bad aim. That could be another reason why the long clips are popular with kids. It’s a good accessory to have when you can’t shoot.Nearly all these kids said you need a gun for protection and for respect. So you don’t look weak.  One said he was mugged once in the neighborhood south of Englewood. It was 1:30 in the morning. Three guys came up.  He saw that one had a gun.  They asked to use his phone, and then wouldn’t give it back. 

LL: And did you have a gun right then?

Boy 4: No, i wish i woulda had one at that moment.

Everybody in the room understands his logic. Another kid chimes in…

Boy 3: If they knew you had a gun, they weren’t even gonna try to walk off with your phone, they probably wouldn’t even walk up to you and ask you for your phone.

It’s like insurance. And if the other guy has a gun, getting a gun yourself seems like the only thing you can do. What these kids describe is essentially an arms race… in their neighborhood.

Boy 4: Most everybody in Englewood got guns. Most of the whole Englewood got guns.