John Thomas set up the deal the way he had arranged nearly two dozen others. A friend said he wanted to buy as many guns as he could, so Thomas got in touch with someone he knew who had guns to sell.
The three of them met in the parking lot of an LA Fitness in south suburban Lansing at noon on Aug. 6, 2014. Larry McIntosh, whom Thomas had met in his South Shore neighborhood, took two semi-automatic rifles and a shotgun from his car and put them in the buyer's car. He handed over a plastic shopping bag with four handguns.
None of the weapons had been acquired legally — two, in fact, had been reported stolen — and none of the men was a licensed firearms dealer.
Thomas' friend, Yousef, paid McIntosh $7,200 for the seven guns. He always paid well.
Thomas did little but watch the exchange, but he got his usual broker's fee of $100 per gun, $700 total. It was "the most money I've seen or made," he recalled — his biggest deal yet.
It was also his last.
Amid Chicago's ongoing epidemic of gun violence — with nearly 500 people killed in shootings and more than 2,800 wounded this year through September — the availability of guns has been blamed as a root cause and become a defining political and public safety issue.
City police have seized nearly 7,000 illegal firearms so far in 2017 and federal authorities have stepped up efforts to take down dealers.
Still, it's by no means clear that targeting those like John Thomas makes a real difference.
Most of the guns police seize come from Indiana and other states where firearms laws are more lax, police and researchers have found. After they were purchased legally, most were sold or loaned or stolen. Typically, individuals or small groups are involved in the dealing, not organized trafficking rings, experts say.
Unlike the drug trade — often dominated by powerful cartels or gangs — illegal gun markets operate more like the way teenagers get beer, "where every adult is potentially a source," said Philip Cook, a researcher at the University of Chicago Crime Lab who's also a Duke University professor.
Under pressure to respond to the violence, law enforcement has focused on making examples of people caught selling, buying or possessing guns. But authorities acknowledge that these cases do little to stem the flow of guns into the city.
"You are a single salmon swimming upstream at Niagara Falls," said Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department. "If your policing strategy is to decrease the number of guns in your city, good luck, because there are too many guns out there. It's better to go after the person with the gun."
An in-depth examination of Thomas' case — based on police reports, court records and interviews, including a series of conversations with Thomas — shows how authorities target mostly street-level offenders, sometimes enticing them with outsized payoffs. In this and other cases, critics say their techniques raise questions of whether they are dismantling gun networks or effectively helping to set them up.
"You have this specter of whether it's creating crime, which is troubling to a lot of people," said Katharine Tinto, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law who has studied the investigative tactics of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "It's not as if you're trying to get someone you know is a violent gun offender. You're going after someone and purposely trying to entice them into doing a felony."