Colorado State University and University of Colorado Denver Professors Reveal Felons’ Attitudes About Guns

Why do criminals use guns? Three professors from Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Denver went straight to the source and interviewed 73 Colorado felons convicted of gun-related crime in a new book, "Guns, Violence, and Criminal Behavior: The Offender’s Perspective," due out this summer.

Led by Mark Pogrebin, professor of criminal justice at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, the team of authors also included Paul Stretesky, associate professor of sociology at CSU (who has since moved to School of Public Affairs at UC-Denver), and CSU’s Prabha Unnithan, professor of sociology. They were interested in identifying the social and cultural forces leading to illegal gun use.

Through in-depth interviews with 67 men and six women serving time in Colorado prisons, the professors were able to gather first-hand accounts of the often overlooked symbolic meanings of guns in criminal situations.

"Our findings underscore the power of social and cultural forces affecting gun use in America," said Unnithan. "In particular, the power and protective symbolism associated with guns was a constant theme among those who used guns in situations of crime and victimization."

The participants provided the researchers with a variety of rationales for gun-related activity.

"Some of the participants told us about carrying guns in social situations – after work, at a party and so on – but a common thread that was repeated was the notion of a street code in which many of the felons believed that carrying guns was necessary for going out. Interestingly enough, nearly a third of our interviewees had been members of street gangs at some point in their lives," Pogrebin said.

Interviews with inmates suggest that laws that limit or expand citizens’ access to guns would have little impact on their criminal behavior. For example, inmates were able to obtain the guns they used in their crime through a variety of ways, including borrowing, stealing and taking them by force. Moreover, laws making it easier for individuals to acquire guns, including Colorado’s concealed carry policy stipulating that all sheriffs should issue such permits other than for reasons specifically stated in the legislation, would likely do little to dissuade the use of guns with criminal intent.

"Most of participants argued that allowing more individuals easier access to guns would not deter them and would drive up the gun crime rate," Unnithan said. "At the same time, some of them supported loosening of ‘concealed carry’ policies arguing that would result in people treating each other better out of fear the other person in a confrontation may be armed."

"Guns, Violence, and Criminal Behavior: The Offender’s Perspective," published by Boulder’s Lynne Rienner Publishers, is due out in July.