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Politics & Policy

How Many Murders Is a National Crisis?

A woman cries at a makeshift memorial left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, Texas, May 22, 2018. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

How many murders is a national crisis? It seems to depend on what your agenda is. And liberal commentators in particular went into a startlingly rapid whipsaw over the past week.

Just a few days ago, the big controversy was over President Trump responding to a question that concluded by talking about the Mara Salvatrucha “MS-13” gang. Trump said that some of the people his administration was deporting were “animals”. Despite Trump’s typically rambling language, it was clear from the context that he was answering the question about MS-13, a gang notorious for beheadings, systematic rape, sex slavery and human trafficking, among other things. Some of Trump’s more thoughtful critics on the left and right focused mostly on his tendency in past statements to blur the lines between brutal gangs and ordinary illegal-immigrant laborers, but many of his liberal critics leaped instead into full “this is just like Hitler!” mode, which of course required them to back into ridiculous rhetorical corners like comparing persecuted German Jews to sex-slaving gang-bangers. Even Chuck Schumer, who is usually savvier about these kinds of traps, walked right into that:

Anyway, in order to attack Trump and Republicans like Ed Gillespie (who ran ads on the issue last year), there’s been a cottage industry of commentary from liberals pooh-poohing the size of the MS-13 threat (example: this Washington Post piece from last fall, entitled “Don’t believe the Trump administration: MS-13 is not ravaging the United States”) and arguing explicitly or implicitly that it’s racist to make a big deal about the gang. Here we have Fordham Law professor John Pfaff (more of his tweets on this theme are collected here):

Pfaff is citing a white paper by the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that commonly presses for tougher immigration enforcement. A sampling:

Center researchers reviewed more than 500 cases of MS-13 gang members arrested nationwide since 2012. We conclude that this resurgence represents a very serious threat to public safety in communities where MS-13 has rebuilt itself…

Key findings:

  • We found 506 MS-13 members arrested or charged with crimes that were reported in 22 states. The most cases were reported in California (92), Maryland (85), New York (80), and Virginia (63).

  • MS-13 crimes are not primarily petty nuisance crimes; 207 MS-13 members were charged with murder. In addition we found more than 100 accused of conspiracy/racketeering, and dozens of others for drug trafficking, sex trafficking, attempted murder, sexual assaults, and extortion.

Of course, 207 murder charges almost certainly understates the number of murders, since gang members who are charged with murder are frequently responsible for other serious crimes for which they haven’t been caught, but let’s run with that number.

Now, compare that to the number of dead from school shootings since 2012. From the New York Times in February:

When a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, it rattled Newtown, Conn., and reverberated across the world. Since then, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide. In those episodes, 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed.

The data used here is from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that began tracking school shootings in 2014, about a year after Sandy Hook.

Like many such compilations, this is a somewhat elastic definition of “school shooting,” though not as egregious as some of the ones in use by organizations like Everytown or CNN:

The nonprofit defines a school shooting as an episode on the property of an elementary school, secondary school or college campus. Another defining characteristic is timing — shootings must occur during school hours or during extracurricular activities.

Still, for the sake of argument and adding the Newtown and Santa Fe shootings to the 138 dead, we’re still working with a number maybe a third smaller than the number of murders attributable to MS-13. Yet, this is treated as a national crisis requiring massive changes to gun policy nationwide, up to and including calls for repealing one of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

So, what is it? Are a hundred, or two hundred, deaths in a nation of 300 million people over six years a national crisis? I would think, and hope, that we have the perspective to be able to identify and address problems that are gravely serious, yet are also numerically not that large. And of course, those arguing for rewriting our whole immigration system around MS-13 are making the same mistake as people trying to impose colossal gun bans.

The proper approach is not to dismiss the very real fears that people have about these issues — including the fact that people not directly affected worry that they might be someday — but rather to choose targeted solutions that address the particular problem rather than trying to strip the rights of large numbers of innocent people. In the school-shootings case, following an idea David French has written about here, police in Florida have been using the state’s new “red flag” law to seize weapons from identified “private citizens who are at risk of harming themselves or others.”

But if you see people saying that a few hundred murders is either not a big deal or a national crisis demanding radical actions, check first to see if they’d change their tune if the issue is one they’re not so eager to capitalize on.


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