"Ronald," a lean man in his mid-40s, speaks in a soft, almost muffled voice and has a wide smile. He supplied more than 70 guns to drug dealers and gang members on the west side from 1988 to 1990. In 1991, after police recovered 14 of his guns at crime scenes or in the possession of gang members and drug dealers, Ronald pleaded guilty to dealing firearms without a federal license. A judge sentenced him to 13 months in prison, followed by one year of probation.
Prior to his arrest, Ronald had never been in serious trouble with the law. As a teenager in the late 60s, he smoked pot and practiced yoga and meditation. Because he lived in public housing, he says, he owned a gun "to keep the peace if things got out of control." When he was in his early 20s Ronald was shot in the chest by a mugger. He suffered a collapsed lung and decided it was time to get out of the neighborhood. He thought a college degree would be his ticket out, so he enrolled in a local university, where he studied criminology, sociology, and psychology before he ran short of money and had to drop out two years shy of a degree.
Ronald then went to work as a security guard. During the 1980s, he says, he had trouble finding steady employment. In 1987 he'd recently been laid off when an acquaintance made him an attractive offer: he'd give Ronald $50 if he'd buy him a gun. Ronald knew the man was young, maybe 20, and that he sold drugs. But, Ronald recalls, "He didn't seem the type of guy to do any harm." Still, Ronald knew he was being asked to commit a crime, so he told the acquaintance he needed some time to think it over. A few days later, coaxed by the money, he reluctantly accepted the offer.
The acquaintance, along with his brother, accompanied Ronald to the gun shop and picked out the weapon he wanted. The sale went off without a hitch. Afterward Ronald reported the gun stolen. "Everything was cool, till they let the word get out to their friends and stuff," Ronald recalls. "Then I was approached by other people." Ronald started averaging $100 a gun. It required a lot of running around, riding out to the suburbs to make the purchase and riding out again three days later to pick up the guns. "My time was well paid for," he says. Occasionally the drug dealers would treat him to lunch or fix him up with "odds and ends." Sometimes they'd slip him a packet of cocaine, which he sold for a profit. "Money do something to people," he says. "It can make you not think. It has done that to a lot of people in our society, hasn't it?" Ronald made only about $7,000 in two years, but that nicely supplemented his public-aid check and allowed him to get by without working a real job.
Ronald bought the guns at six or seven different shops to avoid arousing the gun dealers' suspicions. But one shop had unbeatable prices, and he and the drug dealers visited it more frequently than the others. A group of drug dealers often went into the store with Ronald, pointing out guns they liked. "I couldn't keep them out," he says. The sales clerk, he recalls, was a "cool guy" who nodded in a way that indicated he knew what was going on. At one point, Ronald says, the clerk even verbally acknowledged it. "I knew he wasn't dumb."
But Ronald grew uncomfortable with his role when he noticed changes in his customers. "The guns must have made them crazy after a while," he says. "They started acting tougher. Things got out of hand after I had been doing it for a year and a half. They started branching off into two different cliques, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Gangsters, and that really caused a problem." Ronald found himself stuck in the middle of a gang war, supplying both sides. "They started muscling in on each other's turf, and they'd say, 'You can't sell to these guys--we're having a war with them.' I was scared they might shoot me just to get me out of the way."
Ronald says he never pondered the consequences of arming the gang members, never wrangled with his conscience. Even after hearing that someone had gone on a "wild shooting spree" with one of his guns, he continued to buy them. "I didn't like for it to happen like that," he says, "but I couldn't walk down the street without them asking." And he couldn't turn them down. "I didn't take pride in it. I just did it because it was money. I wasn't thinking with a clear head, I suppose." --T.M.