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Why so much gun crime? Ask the shooters

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Three Colorado professors wanted to know more about gun violence in America -- the social and cultural forces driving illegal gun use, how criminals view their gats, how they use them and why. So they did something few criminal justice researchers have ever bothered to do. They asked the thugs.

Their soon-to-be-released book, Guns, Violence & Criminal Behavior: The Offender's Perspective, isn't exactly light reading, but it's more accessible than most academic studies of gun issues -- and packs more than a few surprises. The authors -- University of Colorado Denver Health Sciences Center criminal justice professor Mark Pogrebin and Colorado State University sociology profs Paul Stretesky and N. Prabha Unnithan -- interviewed 73 felons doing time in Colorado prisons for gun-related crimes, including six women. The participants range from gangbangers to stickup artists to a man who shot his terminally ill wife because she asked him to do it.

The diverse bunch provided the professors with a range of rationales for their actions. Many insisted they had to do what they did because someone disrespected or challenged them (a line of reasoning the authors call "denial of victim"). Others offered up lame excuses or insisted it wasn't the "real me" doing the shooting. Yet what comes through strongly from the interviews is the street code so deeply ingrained in many felons, including the notion that guns are just part of the essential equipment for going out on the town.

Here, for example, is the account of a black male the authors call Zack, who at age 28 found out the most convenient way to silence a trash talker:

Well, I got out of the military and me, my brother, a friend of mine and a friend of his decided to do a robbery. We had an interaction with some other young people and we both stopped at a light. We got into an interaction, and I pulled out my gun and shot the guy in the stomach. I was gonna fight him, but I had a gun. Why fight, you know, when you have a gun?.... I shot a warning shot up in the air to get him away from the car. He stood there. He started talking trash, and I just jammed the gun into his belly and pulled the trigger. He fell to the ground. We drove off, and went and pulled a robbery. I was arrested and I am doing time for attempted murder.

A third of the criminals interviewed had been in street gangs at some point in their lives. Most had extensive criminal records and great familiarity with guns. But many of the guns in question are hardly the kind of firepower you see on cop shows; half reported using revolvers, suggesting that the locals have a way to go to catch up with the supercrooks found in Florida or California. Pogrebin and his colleagues discovered that prison exposure tends to shape an even greater reverence for guns, and it isn't clear that tougher gun laws or easier conceal-carry regulations do much to dissuade crime -- since, as the crimes described here make perfectly clear, criminals are rarely weighing all the logical consequences when they pull the trigger.

The book is scheduled for a fall release from Boulder's Lynne Rienner Publishers, the folks who also brought you the soon-to-be-classic Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class. For more on the Pogrebin-Stretesky-Unnithan research, go here.

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