Of Glocks, computers, and books: analyzing Obama’s claim

Last week at the memorial for five slain Dallas, Texas police officers President Obama spoke. During the first half of his eulogy he spoke glowingly of these fallen servants, the role of law enforcement, and the importance of supporting police. He spoke unequivocally against violence aimed toward law enforcement, while trying to affirm very real causes of concern in some communities. In this he echoed the comments of Dallas Police Chief David Brown and retired Santa Fe Police Chief Donald Grady II.

Somewhere around the halfway point in his talk, the president said:

We also know what Chief Brown has said is true:  That so much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.  (Applause.)  As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools.  We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment.  (Applause.)  We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.  (Applause.)  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 — (applause) — and then we tell the police “you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.”

The “Glock…book” phrase was an echo of words he used last year at Benedict College:

“As long as you can go in some neighborhoods and it is easier for you to buy a firearm than it is for you to buy a book, there are neighborhoods where it is easier for you to buy a handgun and clips than it is for you to buy a fresh vegetable, as long as that’s the case, we’re going to continue to see unnecessary violence,” Obama said in a response to a question at the town hall meeting at Benedict College.

Cards on the table

I did not think the memorial was the proper place to allude to firearms policy. Even though it was in the larger context of placing too great a societal burden on the police (which was appropriate in context), addressing concerns about gun control could have been done another time. A town hall on guns had already been held this year, Obama had mentioned guns after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and will likely do so after every mass shooting or cop killing for the rest of his presidency.

It also seemed out of place as the shooter was an adult veteran of the armed forces, not a teenager from Dallas area government housing.

It’s worth mentioning as well, that Obama is president, but a politician foremost. He has a specific role in the Democratic Party, that being to promote its platform and help get Hillary Clinton elected president. Continually addressing the issue of guns is a way of keeping the platform in the public consciousness.

Love it or leave it, it is politics.

And yet…

Is Obama’s claim about Glocks, computers, and books true? Can teenagers really buy a handgun easier than they can get a computer or a book?

Yes, depending on the community in question.

Obama was assailed for being untruthful by the National Review (No, Books Are Not Harder to Obtain than Guns), the Washington Times, and even, perhaps surprisingly, CBS Marketwatch.

But the award winner for most egregiously biased writing goes to Sean Davis at the Federalist. Or maybe Davis simply didn’t have time to do the research. Or maybe his fact-checker had the day off. What is known is that his piece, No, President Obama, It’s Not Easier To Buy A Glock Than A Book is pitifully, terribly bad. The straw men are so big the Kansas wheat fields must surely have been scraped to the dirt to build them.

Charges Davis:

Is there anyone in America, other than its commander-in-chief, who believes for a second that this even remotely approximates the truth? It’s not just false. It’s laughably false.

For starters, it’s against federal law for anyone under the age of 18 to legally purchase or possess a handgun or handgun ammunition (Glock is the manufacturer of a popular line of handguns, not a synonym for handgun). It’s also against federal law for anyone to sell or deliver a handgun to anyone the seller reasonably believes is under the age of 18.

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t know that legal age to buy a handgun rules out all teenagers under the ages of 18? The problem with Davis’ objection is Obama didn’t say anything about legally purchased handguns. He didn’t propose that 13-year-old boys without a wisp of chin or chest hair are sauntering up to the counter at Gander Mountain, plopping down dear old dad’s VISA, and walking out with a .45 and a barrel of ammo.

Areas rife with gang activity are areas flooded with illegal firearms—firearms that are readily available to teenagers, and even children, at prices far cheaper than computers. Even if you make a technical allowance that smartphones are computers, good luck learning Microsoft Office or Photoshop on one.

As far back as 1993 the L.A. Times reported on the ease with which some teens can get guns:

Leti, 16, borrowed a semiautomatic pistol from her brother with the idea of silencing a group of teasing classmates. Jimmy, 17, picked out a snub-nosed equalizer from a flood of weapons hitting the street after last year’s riots. Chris, 16, discovered a ready supply of handguns in the glove compartments of cars he broke into.

“Guns are easy to get,” Chris boasted.

Stories like these, which have become routine as shootings involving teen-agers in Southern California continue to mount, raise a troubling question: Just how do such lethal weapons end up so easily in the hands of children?

Many guns are found at home, tucked away in hiding places by parents or siblings. A bountiful supply can be found on the streets–sold by addicts, pushed by illegal gunrunners on the black market or passed around by gang members.

Already this year an array of weapons ranging from a sawed-off shotgun to a .357 magnum have been used by young people to commit crimes.

From Seattle, 2008:

When 16-year-old Luis Cosgaya-Alvarez wanted to get a gun, police say, he didn’t have to look far.

Cosgaya-Alvarez bought a .40-caliber handgun on the street in downtown Kent from an illegal dealer, court documents say.

Less than two weeks later, Cosgaya-Alvarez, a self-proclaimed gang member, fired a single shot from that gun to kill a man he argued with outside a Federal Way school, according to documents used to charge him with murder.

The shooting underscored a persistent problem of juveniles using guns in crime: The weapons are simple to get and cheap. They are for sale not just on street corners in Kent but throughout the region.

“People can get stolen guns for 50, 100 bucks,” said Gabe Morales, a local gang expert who works with police and at-risk youths. “It’s easier to get a gun than it is to get a car.”

A 2013 WBEZ interview with several Chicago area 15-year-olds–students at Harper High School–was revealing:

Linda Lutton: 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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

Several critics even noted the price of a new Glock: upward of $500. But, again, the president said nothing about new Glocks.

Guns for $50, $25, or free. Cheaper–and easier–to get than any computer I know of.

What about getting a book? Is it really easier in some communities for teenagers to get a gun than a book? Davis at the Federalist winds up for what he hopes is a death blow:

In Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago, there 80 different public library locations scattered throughout the city. In spite of my extensive Google skills, I was unable to locate any Chicago-area kiosks that dispense handguns to children free of charge, nor was I able to find any government institutions that deliver handguns to children when they walk in the door in August after summer vacation ends.

The president’s claim that teenagers can go out and grab Glocks more easily than they can find books or computers isn’t just false. It’s a pathetic attempt by an ineffective, lame duck president to hijack a service of mourning for his own unpopular political agenda.

Davis’ furious, beating-at-the-air notwithstanding, other researchers have found teenagers and children have extraordinary difficulty in some areas in getting books; yes, even free ones. The Washington Post reports:

Further, the 80 branches of public libraries in the city [Chicago] this year plan to distribute more than 1 million books “to address a persistent lack of access to books in low-income neighborhoods. … There, on average, 300 children share a single book. For middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, library officials said.” According to the Chicago Tribune: “The challenge is that there are many homes in Chicago that do not have age-appropriate books for kids,” Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon said. “Obviously, you can take a library book home, but owning your own is very different.”

A 2016 New York University study identified “book deserts” in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, concluding that there were fewer bookstores in high-poverty areas where families can buy children’s books.

Low-income neighborhoods where on average 300 children would have to share a single book? American cities where books are as rare as springs in the Sahara? And, yet, in some if not most of these communities it would be easier for a teen to get a gun, even if the library was on the opposite corner from their home.

In Philadelphia the presence of libraries still doesn’t guarantee progress. Notes the Library Journal:

Libraries can’t be the problem, but they’re not part of the solution, at least not in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Free Library map of locations shows three libraries open near [North Philly]. They’re not open in the evenings, and only two are open Saturday during the day, and none of them have book drops, according to the website. I assume that means that not only do you have to check out books during business hours, but return them as well.

Meaning it is difficult for children and parents to have library access when they are free to actually go to the library. Unfortunately for children in low-income areas, the physical presence of a library doesn’t translate into easy access to books as the writers at the National Review seem to think.

The absence of book stores is also a factor. NYU researchers

recorded a total of 82,389 print resources in 75 stores. Three of the six neighborhoods had no bookstores, while dollar stores were the most common place to buy children’s books.

The researchers found stark disparities in access to children’s books for families living in high-poverty areas. Borderline communities in all three cities had substantially greater numbers of books – an average of 16 times as many books per child – than did the high-poverty neighborhoods in the same cities.

This disparity was even more pronounced in Washington, D.C. In the high-poverty neighborhood of Anacostia, 830 children would have to share a single age-appropriate book, while only two children would need to share a book in the borderline neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

Is it so hard gang controlled areas with homes bereft of books, yet with a gun or two in the bedside table or on a closet shelf, thereby making it easier for a teenager to get his hands on a gun than a book?

If Obama had said, “It’s easier for a teenager to buy a gun at any gun store than get a computer,” it would have been demonstrably false. It would have been demonstrably false he had said, “Everywhere across the country teenagers can get guns easier than they can get books.” But, he didn’t say those things.

Critics of Obama’s speech would have found more fertile soil for their complaints had they examined his use of “society” and “we” as the source of the illegal guns. “We” and “society” aren’t flooding Cook County, Illinois with illegal guns. Criminals are. And the guns are easy to get.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

  • My contention is that the reason conservatives cannot win the minority vote is that their response to the concerns of these communities is too often “What problem? There is no problem!” rather than saying, “We hear. We care. How can we apply conservative principles to solve these problems?” Liberals may offer solutions that don’t work, but conservatives offer no solutions at all to many of the most pressing concerns of its minority citizens. Instead, we spend all our time arguing that the problems do not exist.