President Barack Obama attracted attention for a bold assertion about how easy it is to obtain a gun during his speech at an interfaith memorial service for five officers slain by a sniper in Dallas, Texas.
"As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools," he said. "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.’"
Critics pounced on the Glock remark, saying Obama was making a misleading — or even outright false — comparison. But the White House said it had evidence to back up Obama’s line.
So we decided to take our own look.
What the White House says
The White House offered PolitiFact several news reports to back up Obama’s case.
The gist of these reports was that there are lots of guns to be found in low-income urban areas, but comparatively few books and relatively little access to the Internet.
However, much of the evidence these articles provided was anecdotal, and none of the articles directly compared guns to computers or books --- not to mention Glocks, the specific make of handgun Obama cited.
And none of the articles offered a rigorous academic comparison of the specific claim Obama made.
• One study by New York University researchers found a scarcity of children’s books in low-income areas of Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington. But the study looked at stores that sold books without taking into account public libraries or school libraries, which make obtaining books easier. More importantly, the study didn’t compare the availability of guns.
For instance, one Chicago resident told Al Jazeera America that getting a gun in her neighborhood is 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."
And D. Watkins, a young, African-American writer from Baltimore who wrote The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America, told public radio host Terry Gross that he bought his first gun "from some dudes in the neighborhood that sold guns. It was simple. ... (It was) Business as usual. And it's still like that."
None of these accounts offered a direct comparison of guns’ availability compared with books or Internet access.
• One link referenced an academic study about a lack of access to food in low-income areas, but it did not address either guns or books.
• A news report cited research about the relative lack of Internet access in low-income households. But another article the White House provided said that while teens in families making less than $50,000 a year are less likely to have access to a desktop or a laptop computer than teens in higher income groups, the rate even for the lower-income group is still pretty high: All told, eight of every 10 of these lower-income teens had access to a computer.
In all, we find the White House’s evidence unpersuasive on Obama’s specific claim. There’s no hard data making his comparison. And on the question of access to computers, we found data showing a relatively high rate of Internet access even among lower-income teens.
Problems with the comparisons
We considered the meaning of Obama’s remark a few different ways — but none provide a slam dunk for his argument.
He said it was easier for a teen to obtain a Glock over a book or a computer.
It might be easier for some people in some places, but it’s still against the law.
"It is already against federal law for someone under the age of 21 to buy a handgun, such as a Glock, from a licensed firearms dealer," said John R. Lott, Jr., president of the generally pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center. And federal law on handguns also makes it unlawful for anyone "to sell, deliver, or otherwise transfer (a handgun) to a person who the transferor knows or has reasonable cause to believe is a juvenile" — that is, under 18.
That means that any teen would have to break the law to make such a purchase. Alternately, they could barter for a handgun or steal one, which might be practical but would also be against the law.
So let’s now consider the case of teens who are willing to break the law.
One interpretation is whether a gun is cheaper to get than a book. Experts said the price of a "street" handgun can range between $50 and $500, depending on the local vagaries of supply and demand.
Glocks in particular "are very expensive," said Alan Lizotte, a criminal justice professor at the University at Albany. Street Glocks without a criminal history would be especially tough, he said.
That would make them easily more expensive than books purchased at a store, and certainly more expensive than books borrowed for free from a library.
The second interpretation of Obama’s remark is the ease, or accessibility, of locating a gun. This is perhaps the most favorable interpretation for Obama, since credible research shows that there’s both a relative shortage of books and a relative surplus of guns in low-income neighborhoods.
But it’s worth remembering that there don’t appear to be any studies that compare books and guns directly. In addition, there’s a lot of variation, neighborhood by neighborhood, across the country.
"If there’s lots of street-gang activity where you live, you may know someone who can get you a gun," said James Alan Fox, interim director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. "If you live in a middle- or upper-middle class suburb, a gun may not be as accessible for a teenager. I wouldn’t know who to ask to buy a street gun."
Some points for Obama
Experts acknowledged, though, that Obama had a point with his remark, even if he made an imperfect comparison.
"It is pretty easy for a teen to get a handgun at little cost and very quickly, at least in some places, including urban places," Lizotte said.
That said, Jay Corzine, a sociologist and gun-policy expert at the University of Central Florida, called Obama’s framing "weird."
"The most credit I can give the president is that the statement may be true in a very small number of cases that are dependent on the context -- location, day of the week, time of the day, cash in hand," Corzine said.
Obama said, "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."
There’s little doubt that in some lower-income and high-crime neighborhoods, it is strikingly easy for even teens to acquire a handgun. On this, there is ample anecdotal evidence.
But buying a gun is not likely to be cheaper than buying -- or borrowing -- a book or securing access to a computer, even for teens in poor neighborhoods.
On multiple levels, Obama’s comparison is flawed. We rate it Mostly False.https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/08198a52-ac06-472b-8b7e-c51e47432be3
Barack Obama, remarks at an interfaith memorial service in Dallas, July 12, 2016
The Federalist, "No, President Obama, It’s Not Easier To Buy A Glock Than A Book," July 12, 2016
City of Chicago, library locations, accessed July 13, 2016
Chicago public school locations, accessed July 13, 2016
Private School Review, "Chicago Private High Schools," accessed July 13, 2016
New York University, "NYU Study Identifies 'Book Deserts' -– Poor Neighborhoods Lacking Children’s Books –- Across the Country," July 12, 2016
NPR, "Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black,' " May 13, 2016
The Economist, "Feeling the heat: Gun control is getting increasingly political in the Windy City," Feb. 9, 2013
Al Jazeera America, "Why does Chicago have so many illegal guns?" Oct. 22, 2014
WBEZ radio, "Where Chicago teenagers get their guns," Feb. 25, 2013
Medill News Service, "During Obama's Visit, Doubts About Guns - and Gun Laws," Oct. 28, 2015
CoLab radio, "Connecting the Dots between Food Deserts & Urban Violence," Sept. 9, 2015
Christian Science Monitor, "Why many low-income families have Internet access, but remain 'under-connected,' "Feb. 3, 2016
Pew Research Center, "A Majority of American Teens Report Access to a Computer, Game Console, Smartphone and a Tablet," April 9, 2015
Email interview with John R. Lott, Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, July 12, 2016
Email interview with Alan Lizotte, criminal justice professor at the University at Albany, July 13, 2016
Email interview with Jay Corzine, a sociologist and gun-policy expert at the University of Central Florida, July 13, 2016
Interview with James Alan Fox, interim director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, July 13, 2016
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