As Americas digest the news of another gun atrocity, a mall shooting in Nebraska on December 5th, they cannot be blamed for thinking that guns are in too ready supply. But an article in the latest Economic Journa suggests that the demand for illegal guns, at least, is not met as easily as people might fear. Sudhir Venkatesh, now of Columbia University, has talked to 132 gang-members, 77 prostitutes, 116 gun-owning youths, 23 gun-dealers and numerous other denizens of Chicago's Grand Boulevard and Washington Park neighbourhoods. He did not find many satisfied customers.
Chicago has unusually tough restrictions on legal handguns. Even so the black market is surprisingly “thin”, attracting relatively few buyers and sellers. The authors reckon that the 48,000 residents of the two neighbourhoods buy perhaps 1,400 guns a year, compared with at least 200,000 cocaine purchases. Underground brokers sell guns for $150-350, a mark-up of perhaps 200% over the legal price. They also demand a fee of $30-50 for orchestrating the deal. Even then, 30-40% of the transactions fall through because the seller cannot secure a gun, gets cold feet or cannot agree on a location for the deal.
Buyers also find it hard to verify the quality of the merchandise. They often know little about the weapons they covet. “Tony”, who owns a .38 calibre handgun, learnt how to use his weapon by fiddling with it. He even put a stone in it. “Did it fire?” Mr Venkatesh asked. “I'm not sure. I think it did,” Tony said.
Fortunately for Tony and his peers, their rivals and the victims of crime cannot tell if their guns work any better than they can. Often, showing the “bulge” is enough to gain the respect of rival gangs. In robberies brandishing the weapon will usually do. Storekeepers do not wait for proof that it works.
Markets can overcome thinness, the paper says; they can also overcome illegality. But they cannot overcome both. A thin market must rely on advertising or a centralised exchange: eBay, for example, has dedicated pages matching sellers of imitation pearl pins or Annette Funicello bears to the few, scattered buyers that can be found. But such solutions are too cumbersome and conspicuous for an underground market. The drugs market, by contrast, slips through the law's fingers because of the natural density of drug transactions. Dealers can always find customers on their doorstep, and buyers can reassure themselves about suppliers through repeated custom. There are no fixed and formal institutions that the police could easily throttle.
Indeed, the authors argue that the gun market may be threadbare partly because the drug market is so plump. Gang-leaders are wary of gun-dealing because the extra police scrutiny that guns attract would jeopardise their earnings from coke and dope. Even Chicago's gang-leaders have to worry about the effect of crime on commerce.