CROWN POINT, Indiana — At a gun show on Indiana’s fairgrounds, hundreds of people filed past tables of firearms — World War Two relics, handguns, hunting rifles, and combat-grade automatic weapons — sprinkled with a selection of knives, Nazi artifacts, Confederate flags, dozens of anti-Obama and anti-Islam bumper stickers, and t-shirts with slogans including “Infidel” and “I want YOU to learn English.”
“You got something to sell in that bag, buddy?,” one vendor asked a passerby at the December show. Guns aren’t just for sale — you can trade yours in, and vendors are buying.
Indiana’s gun laws are relatively simple. Federally licensed “brick and mortar” gun dealers are required to perform standard background checks, while vendors selling their “private collections” at gun shows are not. An Indiana resident could walk out of the Crown Point gun show with a legally purchased assault rifle that same day — without a background check — less than an hour from Chicago, where assault rifles are banned. Handguns are subject to different regulations in Indiana.
Indiana’s Republican-controlled government has rolled back firearm regulations in recent years. In July 2015, a new law went into effect that made it legal for residents to own sawed-off shotguns. People typically saw off part of the gun barrel to make a gun more concealable and maneuverable.
When asked to comment for this report, a spokesperson for Indiana Governor Mike Pence directed Al Jazeera to a tweet written by the governor in early January that said: “Second Amendment unambiguously affirms the right to keep and bear arms. I will continue to support the Constitutional rights of Hoosiers.”
Chicago Police point to Indiana as a major source of guns recovered at crime scenes, indicating that the state’s lax gun purchasing laws, through gun trafficking, are fueling the city’s violence. Gun violence in Chicago remains high, with more than 2,300 shootings in 2015 alone and a homicide count of 484, including the November murder of a 9-year-old boy targeted in gang violence.
“You can be in the city of Chicago and be closer to a gun show in Indiana than you are to downtown,” said Sarah Emmons, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chicago Crime Lab. “Having such dramatically different regulations in such close proximity makes it really, really easy for folks [to bring illegal guns into Chicago].”
Emmons and Julia Quinn, another researcher at the crime lab, said research has shown very few crime guns in Chicago come from federally licensed dealers. A 2015 study by the institute estimated that only 11 percent of crime guns recovered in Chicago were purchased from federally licensed vendors, which require background checks, and that many were passed or sold through social networks. They cited straw purchases — where one person buys a gun for a person who cannot legally purchase one — as a major contributor to the city’s underground gun market.
“I think that speaks to the regulations in Indiana, and why it’s quite obvious why a gang member might go into Indiana where they can buy guns quite easily at a show or private sale,” Quinn said.
According to a 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, 60 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in the city between 2009 and 2012 Between 2009 and 2013, almost 60 percent of guns used to commit crimes in Chicago were first purchased outside of Illinois. Each state in the country contributed at least one gun used in a Chicago crime. — nearly 20 percent came from Indiana, the second-highest state after Illinois. The City of Chicago’s regulations are stricter than the rest of the state.
“The carnage in Chicago is still being driven by guns that are coming from elsewhere,” Quinn said.
In May 2014, a federal judge sentenced a man to 17 years in prison for illegally selling guns on the street in Chicago, which he had legally purchased in Indiana.
“I try to bring out the point on the illegal trafficking and the number of guns going to Chicago,” said Edmund Smith, president of Hoosiers Concerned About Gun Violence, a group that advocates for gun control in Indiana, referencing the gun control discussion there. “I think there is some awareness, certainly, but I couldn’t say otherwise.”
Smith’s organization is pushing for universal background checks — including at gun shows and private sales — an assault rife and armor-piercing ammunition ban, and a limit on the number of handguns that can be purchased within a 30-day period.
Back in Crown Point — and in Shipshewana, Indiana, which hosted a gun show on the same day in mid December — all those who were asked to comment declined to speak with Al Jazeera for this report. Central Indiana Gun Shows, which facilitated the Crown Point show, did not respond to requests for comment.
National Rife Association spokesperson Lars Dalseide said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera that other factors are fueling Chicago’s epidemic of violence.
“The violent crime problem in Chicago has nothing to do with the gun laws in Indiana,” he said. “There are countless reports in the Chicago media about low prosecution rates and the short sentences handed down to repeat offenders. Instead of treating the law-abiding gun owners of Indiana like criminals they should start treating the criminals in Chicago like criminals.”
Emmons and Quinn maintain that guns are a major contributor to the lethality of crime in the United States.
“Evidence and data from other countries who have similar rates of some violent crimes, but very different rates of homicide, suggest that guns probably are a big part of the problem,” Quinn said. “Designing more effective enforcement strategies, or reasonable gun safety regulations, would make a big difference in the short term. So why not give it a shot?”
Numerous studies in recent years have found that a higher number of guns does not lead to a decrease in crime, and actually is associated with higher rates of violent crimes. A 2014 study from Stanford found that eight states saw their homicide rates increase after passing right-to-carry laws in the early 2000s.
Some estimates place the number of guns in the United States at more than 350 million — or, one for every person in the United States.
“I think that guns don’t help,” Emmons said. “And the prevalence of guns is really causing a lot of the lethality.”