May 7 2013

Gun Violence: The Data Tell an Interesting Story

Charlotte Hays

One of the most depressing things about the gun control debate is that--well--we don't seem to be able to have a calm, data-driven debate.

Gun control has become a cause for moral preening. If you were against the gun control bill that recently failed in Congress, the left considers you scum.  But would it have done anything to end gun violence?

Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College for Criminal Justice David M. Kennedy, acknowledging that passage of the legislation would have been hailed as a historic breakthrough, points out in the L.A. Times that the law would have had almost nil effect on gun violence.

That is because the gun-control debate entirely missed the point. Kennedy writes:

The fact is that most of the recent debate entirely missed the point about the nature of most gun violence in America. The largest share — up to three-quarters of all homicides in many cities — is driven by gangs and drug crews. Most of the remainder is also concentrated among active criminals; ordinary citizens who own guns do not commit street robberies or shoot their neighbors and wives ...

... Gun violence turns out to be driven by a fantastically small number of people: about 5% of the young men in the most dangerous neighborhoods. It is possible to identify them, put together a partnership of law enforcement, community figures and social service providers, and have a face-to-face engagement in which the authorities say, "We know who you are, we know what you're doing, we'd like to help you, but your violence has to stop, and there will be serious legal consequences if it doesn't."

... Even in high-crime communities, gun violence is concentrated geographically. It is particular blocks and corners, not whole neighborhoods, that are at highest risk. Rutgers University criminologist Anthony Braga has found that such places often stay hot for decades. Focused police attention on those places pays demonstrable dividends. Mere presence works; more sophisticated problem-solving efforts work better.

These approaches can work quickly, and they sidestep the culture war on guns because they require no legislative action. Most important, they bring relief to the beleaguered communities that need it the most.

Guns in particular are a women’s issue because a law-abiding woman has a better chance against a thuggish invader if she has a gun and knows how to use it. But if you try to make this argument, you are likely to be so loudly vilified that nobody listens to what you are saying.  

Troy Senik of Ricochet pointed me towards the Kennedy piece. Senik is skeptical of some of what he considers watered-down solutions Kennedy puts forward--such as “community outreach.” (“The people who think ‘community outreach’ is a solution to violent crime are the same people who really bought into pep rallies in high school.”)

Senik believes that “standing athwart gun control” is not going to win many converts, but there is another way:

Simultaneously pushing for law enforcement efforts to curb violence where it actually happens, however, would allow us to wed a principled defense of the Second Amendment with practical efforts to actually make our streets safer. And it would lend a lot more credibility to the notion that we're the adults in this debate.

Calling for better policing, however, is mundane and not as likely to benefit politicians:

The efforts that would have the most effect -- namely, a more forceful police presence in America's most dangerous neighborhoods -- offer none of the political benefits that flow from standing before a bank of microphones on Capitol Hill. It's easy to pass legislation. It's much harder (and less visible) to marshal existing resources more effectively. It also happens to be what government's there for, however.

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