The Corner

Crime, Guns, and the Complexity of America

The New York Times notes the remarkable drop in crime to which Americans have been treated over the last two decades, and concludes that nobody is quite sure what explains it:

The reasons for the broad drop in crime remain elusive. It has confounded both those from the right who had predicted that waves of young predators would terrorize communities and those on the left who watched crime fall even through ups and downs in poverty and unemployment.

. . .

The major increases in drug and gun sentences in the 1980s and ’90s played some role but only a modest one, most experts say, with soaring incarceration rates bringing diminishing returns while disproportionately hitting minorities.

Various experts have also linked the fall in violence to the aging of the population, low inflation rates and even the decline in early-childhood lead exposure.

But in the end, none of these factors fully explain a drop that occurred, in tandem, in much of the world.

“Canada, with practically none of the policy changes we point to here, had a comparable decline in crime over the same period,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor and an expert in criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley. He described the quest for an explanation as “criminological astrology.”

Indeed so. In fact, the Washington Post reports, the cause of the decline is such a mystery that:

today’s chart of the day, from the New York Times, is something of a Rorschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see in it. New York Police Commissioner William Bratton puts the decline down to the ”broken windows” theory of aggressive policing. Advocates of harsh sentencing laws can argue that more criminals were spending more time in jail, and that others, threatened with long terms, gave up their accomplices once apprehended.

Now, I don’t know what has happened, and in consequence I have no intention of treating the decline as my own Rorschach test. My instinct is that the remarkable economic growth we have seen since the 1990s has a lot to do with it, but that’s little more than a hunch. Either way, I will note something that interested me: namely that that the decline – which is mirrored in the realm of gun crime, too — has coincided with a significant increase in the number of privately owned firearms in the United States, and with the liberalization of many of the laws that regulate them — including the introduction of concealed carry regimes into all fifty states. Did one cause the other in any significant way? I can’t know. What I can know, however, is that the apocalyptic predictions of the naysayers were wrong. Concealed carry has not transformed the United States’s public spaces into the OK Corral, and nor has the spike in the number of available guns pushed up the murder rate. This matters.

Why does it matter? Well, because we often hear it asserted that there is a simple link between guns and gun crime: more specifically, that the more guns in circulation, the more gun crime there will be. At one level, this is true. Obviously, America has a much higher gun-violence rate than do most Western countries, and, obviously, this has something to do with the fact that it hosts half of the world’s privately owned guns. Nevertheless, beyond noting that a country with lots of guns will have more gun crime than one with no guns at all, the manner in which the raw number of guns interacts with the murder rate is far more complex than it often seems. It is not the case, for example, that a lightly regulated and heavily armed populace is always violent. Vermont, which has high gun ownership rate and almost no laws governing firearms, is extraordinarily peaceful. Nor, as the past two decades have shown, is it the case that to increase the number of firearms is always to increase the number of incidents in which firearms are used for ill. Certainly, if your aim is to rid the country of all its guns, the claim that “guns cause gun violence” makes sense. If one could snap one’s fingers and make all the firearms disappear, there would be no firearms deaths. But if, like most people, you accept that America’s guns aren’t going anywhere and you want to know what can be done to limit their abuse, it is important to recognize the subtleties here.

Bottom line: The drop that the Times is discussing has occurred during the exact period that the right to keep and bear arms has been affirmed, protected, and exercised by an increasing number. America is complex — and far, far more so that we often like to accept.

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