How to fight crime

Con­fes­sions of a gun ag­nos­tic Guest writer

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - ROBERT MARANTO Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Cen­tury Chair in Lead­er­ship in the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form at the Univer­sity of Arkansas, and serves on the Fayetteville school board. The views here are his alone.

My friends seem equally and op­po­sitely ob­sessed with guns: Half want to ban them, and half want to re­quire them. At the risk of en­rag­ing both halves, I’m a gun ag­nos­tic.

To one half, that means not car­ing about thou­sands of vic­tims of gun crime, not to men­tion ac­ci­den­tal deaths. To the other half, that means in­dif­fer­ence to our Sec­ond Amend­ment rights. Please hear me out. My views re­flect fam­ily and so­cial sci­ence.

My grand­fa­ther got guns when Bal­ti­more Mayor Wil­liam Broen­ing dep­u­tized Ital­ian Amer­i­can busi­ness own­ers to force the Black Hand, what non-Ital­ians call the Mafia, back to Philadel­phia. Years later in the 1960s, my great-un­cle, then 90, shot two armed rob­bers in his beloved store. To es­cape re­venge, he had to flee Bal­ti­more.

So for my fam­ily, guns were dirty things used to harm or, at best, de­ter peo­ple.

Then in the 1980s, I took an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor­ship in Long Beach, Miss., where ev­ery­one seemed to have a gun. Even a col­lege dean packed heat in his pickup, per­haps in the un­likely event that a flight of doves would sud­denly ma­te­ri­al­ize dur­ing hunt­ing sea­son.

The funny thing was, un­like Bal­ti­more­ans, Long Beach peo­ple didn’t shoot other peo­ple. My fa­ther saw the same thing years ear­lier when he lived else­where, as did a cousin who moved out West. Gun cul­ture varies from place to place, which ex­plains why not all good peo­ple hate guns.

Later, I con­fronted guns as a so­cial sci­en­tist. Two stu­dents in my pub­licpol­icy class nearly came to blows over gun con­trol. (One even­tu­ally be­came a pro­fes­sor; the other a Tea Party ac­tivist, so each con­tin­ued the fight.) In re­sponse, we had an in­for­mal de­bate on John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime. That re­quired im­mer­sion in Lott and his crit­ics, many bor­ing hours of my life I will never get back.

Lott “proved” that as states loos­ened gun laws, crime fell, prob­a­bly since wide­spread gun own­er­ship de­terred crim­i­nals. Op­po­nents coun­tered that con­trol­ling for other fac­tors, more guns might bring more crime. Much de­pended on tech­ni­cal as­sump­tions re­gard­ing sta­tis­ti­cal tech­niques, mea­sures, con­trols, sam­ples, and lag times, the lat­ter since re­forms take years to work.

Ac­cept­ing Lott’s rea­son­able method­olog­i­cal as­sump­tions, weak­en­ing gun con­trol mod­estly re­duces crime. Ac­cept­ing his nu­mer­ous (most pro­fes­sors hate guns) crit­ics’ equally rea­son­able as­sump­tions, strength­en­ing gun con­trol mod­estly re­duces crime.

Each side had sound, fury, and self-right­eous con­tempt for op­po­nents—all wildly out of pro­por­tion to equiv­o­cal data.

Funded by foun­da­tions and backed by politi­cians mo­bi­liz­ing their bases, Amer­i­cans fight epic cul­ture wars over guns, os­ten­si­bly to lower crime. Mean­time, get­ting lit­tle schol­arly at­ten­tion, the New York Po­lice De­part­ment (NYPD) cut homi­cide not mod­estly, but by over 80 per­cent. De­spite high poverty, New York now has about 50 per­cent fewer killings per capita than the na­tional av­er­age! (I fo­cus on homi­cide since po­lice may un­der-re­port other crimes, but do not hide dead bod­ies.) Suc­cess did not re­quire bru­tal­ity. NYPD’s 35,000 of­fi­cers kill about a dozen civil­ians an­nu­ally, about 75 per­cent fewer the na­tional norm and nearly 90 per­cent lower than in 1971.

As Franklin Zim­ring proves in his con­clu­sive and alas, rarely read The City That Be­came Safe, lower crime did not re­sult from eco­nomic growth, de­mo­graphic change or mass in­car­cer­a­tion. New York’s prison pop­u­la­tion ac­tu­ally de­clined, not that the news me­dia no­ticed. Rather, peo­ple sta­tis­ti­cally likely to have com­mit­ted crimes in the past do not, prob­a­bly de­terred by bet­ter polic­ing.

How did the NYPD do it? This at­tracts lit­tle at­ten­tion from schol­ars, but my col­lab­o­ra­tors and I be­lieve that three strate­gies en­abled nu­mer­ous ef­fec­tive tac­tics.

First, the de­part­ment col­lects re­al­time crime data, de­ploy­ing po­lice where and when needed. Many de­part­ments have such data but few use it, which is where the other two strate­gies come in. The NYPD re­cruits the best hu­man cap­i­tal from all over the coun­try. Fi­nally, the de­part­ment’s com­mis­sion­ers have unique power over precinct com­man­ders, which they use to pro­mote lead­ers who fight crime and pre­ma­turely re­tire oth­ers.

Re­form­ing the NYPD likely saved over 25,000 lives, dis­pro­por­tion­ately black lives. Re­cently, un­der ex­ter­nal pres­sure, New York City po­lice largely ended hu­mil­i­at­ing, racially sus­pect stop-and-frisk tac­tics, and still kept crime low. Alas, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists were too busy protest­ing the NYPD to no­tice suc­cess, while giv­ing a free pass to other po­lice de­part­ments with hor­ren­dous records.

That ex­plains why no one copies NYPD. Po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists find fight­ing cul­ture wars more fun than push­ing po­lice re­forms that might save lives: No won­der Amer­i­cans hate politics.

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