Obama misfires on comparison of gun and book access in poor areas

During his speech at an interfaith memorial service for five Dallas police officers slain by a sniper, President Barack Obama made a bold assertion about how easy it is to obtain a gun.

“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, saying Obama was making a misleading comparison.

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 was anecdotal. None of the articles offered a rigorous academic comparison of the specific claim Obama made.

For example:

• 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. The study didn’t compare the availability of guns.

• Several articles offered quotes by people familiar with low-income communities that included observations similar to what Obama said in Dallas.

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.

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.”

None of these accounts offered a direct comparison of guns’ availability compared with books or Internet access.

PolitiFact finds the White House’s evidence unpersuasive on Obama’s specific claim. There’s no hard data making his comparison.

The president 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.

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.

“There are 80 public libraries in Chicago and 95 public high schools and 92 private high schools in the city,” Lott said.

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.

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.

Our ruling

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.

Obama’s comparison is flawed on multiple levels,

We rate it Mostly False.

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For the full fact-check with all sourcing, please see www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jul/14/barack-obama/barack-obama-offers-flawed-comparison-between-teen/