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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama on Access to Guns

In his speech in Dallas, President Barack Obama said “it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.” But the White House couldn’t provide anything more than anecdotal evidence to support such a claim.

There is a dearth of recent research on the issue of gun availability, access and use among young urban males, because federal funding for gun violence research has dried up. What research is available, however, does say that teens do report relatively easy access to illegally obtained guns in some urban areas. However, the percentage of teenagers who own a computer is far higher than those who have a gun, and a teenager can “get his hands” on a book as easily as a walk to the local library.

A 2012 Pew Research Center report found that 73 percent of teens who come from households that make less than $30,000 a year have a computer.

Obama made his remarks during a memorial service for the five law enforcement officers who were shot and killed in Dallas by a 25-year-old black man who told police he was targeting white officers. In context, the president was talking about the ease of access to guns in low-income urban areas and the lack of investment in educational resources.

Obama, July 12: As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.

We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.

And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.

A Glock is a name brand handgun that was among the top 20 illegal guns seized by the Chicago Police Department in 2015. How easy is it to illegally obtain a handgun on the streets of major cities? That is not easy to determine let alone compare with the access of books and computers.

A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice titled “Peers and Gun Use Among Urban Adolescent Males” reviewed more than 100 studies published since 1990 “on patterns of gun availability, carrying, or use among youth.” The authors said that “researchers have documented the difficulty of accurately measuring youth access to guns.” Deanna L. Wilkinson, an associate professor in human development and family science at Ohio State University and lead author of that paper, told us that’s because it is illegal for anyone under 18 to own a handgun. “There are no lists of illegal gun owners,” she said.

Also, the studies that were available to Wilkinson and her team date from the 1990s, so there is a dearth of current research. A “major factor” for that, she said, is “the federal government ban on funding for research on gun use and gun violence.”

As we have written before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been wary of funding research on guns after lobbyists for the National Rifle Association convinced Congress to cut into its funding after a series of studies in the mid-1990s were viewed by the NRA as advocating for gun control.

For years, appropriations bills for the CDC included language stating, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” In January 2013, Obama ordered the CDC to begin researching “the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.” But the Washington Post noted in January 2015 that Congress “has continued to block dedicated funding,” and as a result “the CDC is no closer to initiating gun-violence studies.”

“I experienced the change in funding priority very directly during the transition of leadership from [Bill] Clinton to [George W.] Bush,” Wilkinson told us. “I had a juvenile gun violence research project that was recommended for funding through the peer review process while Clinton was still in office. By the time Bush came into office it was defunded.”

The 2009 paper co-authored by Wilkinson included these findings from some of the studies she and her team reviewed:

How do teenagers obtain guns? Using Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun trace data on more than 1,500 guns, a 2001 study by Harvard professors Anthony Braga and David Kennedy “found that juveniles and youth obtained the majority of their guns through retail outlets and thefts despite the fact that it is illegal for minors to purchase handguns via retail outlets.” Straw purchases — in which buyers purchase guns on behalf of others they know to be prohibited from possessing a firearm — accounted for more than a third of the illegal purchases.

How easy is it for teenagers to get guns? The Tulane University National Youth Survey conducted in 1996 said that 50 percent of the 731 boys surveyed in 10th and 11th grades “reported that obtaining a gun would be ‘little’ or ‘no’ trouble if they desired one; half rated the task as ‘a lot of trouble’ or ‘impossible.'” The authors wrote that the survey did “little to dispel the common perception that juveniles can obtain firearms relatively easily.”

How many teenagers actually possess a gun? The Tulane national survey found that 29 percent of those 10th and 11th grade boys reported possessing a gun in the past year. Similarly, a survey of 5,801 California adolescents in 2000-2001 found that 33 percent had “ever handled a gun.”

The most recent data we could find come from a report on youth risk behaviors published in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the data — drawn from a national survey of high school students — were limited to those who had carried a gun at least once during the previous 30 days. That number, predictably, is far less than those who have ever handled a gun.

Nevertheless, here is what the CDC found: About 5.3 percent of high school students reported that they had carried a gun at least once during the previous 30 days. That rate decreased between 1993 and 1997 (from 7.9 percent to 5.9 percent), but has remained roughly the same between 1997 and 2015. Looking just at sampling of 15 large urban school districts, the CDC surveys found the prevalence of having carried a gun ranged from 2.2 percent in Los Angeles to 5.9 percent in Oakland. (See Table 10.) The median across large urban school districts was 4.5 percent.

Most studies note that gun use is prevalent among youths who engage in high-risk behaviors, such as using drugs and joining gangs.

Indeed, a study published in Pediatrics in August 2013 looked at firearm possession rates among nearly 700 youth victims of assault (age 14 to 24) who came to the emergency department at a hospital in Flint, Michigan. Among them, 23.1 percent said they had possessed a firearm in the previous six months. That study noted that those who had experience with “firearm-related violence” had “higher rates” of “group fighting” and “gang membership.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told us that the president was “simply making the serious point about the lack of opportunity and ready access to guns in way too many places.” Schultz provided us with anecdotal evidence, mainly links to news articles where people spoke about how easy it is to obtain a gun illegally in urban areas, such as Chicago.

For example, a 2014 article by Al Jazeera America quoted a Chicago resident, Diane Latiker, saying that buying a gun was as easy as buying a pack of gum. “If you want a gun, you can just go get a gun,” she said. “You got the money? You can get a gun.” Likewise, the Economist quoted Marcenia Richards, the executive director of the Peace Coalition Against Violence in Chicago, as saying, “It is easier to buy a gun or drugs here than food.”

We don’t doubt that it is too easy for young people to access guns illegally in some urban areas, based on the studies that we reviewed. But the president overstates his case when he says it is “easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”

2012 Pew Research Center survey shows computer ownership is prevalent among teens, including those from low-income households. Eight out of 10 teens age 12 to 17 have a desktop or laptop computer, Pew found. Among the 20 percent of teens who do not have their own computer, two-thirds have access to one they can use at home. “Taken together, this means that 93 percent of teens have a computer or access to one,” Pew reports.

Digging a little deeper into the data, 75 percent of teens in urban areas have a desktop or laptop computer, and even 73 percent of teens who come from households that make less than $30,000 a year have a computer, Pew reported.

As for books, the White House sent us a recent Chicago Tribune article on a free 1 million book giveaway by the city’s public libraries to address what the paper called a “persistent lack of access to books in low-income neighborhoods.” But that same article notes that the Chicago Public Library system has 80 branches — not to mention school libraries — so it should be far more easy for a teenage boy in Chicago to “get his hands” on a book than a gun.

Obama’s point about the availability of guns in some urban areas is well taken, but he simply goes too far in his analogy.