How to fight crime
Confessions of a gun agnostic
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.