Monday, October 20, 2008

Getting Harmed Without Firearms

Korea just suffered an arson-plus-stabbing attack that killed six and injured seven. It's not the first time this sort of homicide has taken place in an industrialized country in Asia. Earlier this year, a Japanese man plowed his truck into a pedestrian-filled intersection and assaulted passersby with a knife. The attack, which killed seven and injured ten, came unusually close to home: my relative had crossed the same intersection with her daughter in the Akihabara electronics district just hours before the killings occurred.

These attacks aren't just an Asian phenomenon fueled by lifelong martial arts training. A "wave" of knife crime in the United Kingdom has killed twenty teens this year in London alone. The United States isn't without exposure to knifing fatalities, either. One woman, who stabbed the same husband two hundred times (naturally, he died), is hoping to get a new trial. Seven years ago, a single attacker on a California knifing spree killed five family members before disappearing with his three-year-old son (whom he later also killed, for a total of six knifing homicides; he finally committed suicide in police custody, but that death did not involve a knife). Later that year, nineteen men armed with boxcutters caused the death of over three thousand in New York and the District of Columbia when they added to their on-aircraft boxcutter killings the people trapped in buildings into which they then collided the aircraft.

Americans' disagreements about firearms policy seem to blind them to the larger problem of violence, which is that people who want to cause mayhem are free to select the tools of their choice. While her daughter looked on in horror, one angry Texas woman did doughnuts atop her cheating husband in a hotel parking lot with her SUV. It's not like cars are either hard to come by in this country, or require great strength to use. Mayhem is only one pedal away.

Safety isn't about the lack of tools of mischief. Safety is about a culture whose values don't escalate avoidable conflicts. To the extent we are unhappy with violence -- whether it involves firearms or not, whether it involved strangers or family members, whether it is fueled by religious hatreds or ethnocentric supremacy theories or despair over economic threats and the death of one's life's dreams -- we should be looking to solve the problem of the people. Jurisdictions with radically different laws on weaponry have violence problems at least as bad as exist here.

Jurisdictions with nominally mandatory firearm possession don't seem to be at particular risk of violent crime. Twenty-five years murder-free, Atlanta's neighbor Kennesaw has a high firearm ownership rate that has fallen to 50% as the town has grown, while lowering its overall crime rate -- a rather better result than Morton Grove, Illinois earned after passing a gun ban. The murder risk in Switzerland is not alarmingly high -- though males from 21 to 32 all must keep an M-57 automatic rifle and 24 rounds of ammunition at home. (Older males below retirement age are in the reserves, also able to access military-style weapons.) Something beyond mere convenience drives violent crime.

Long touted as evidence that gun control reduces violent crime, the United Kingdom slowly surpassed the United States in its rate of assaults, robberies, and thefts; Scotland's non-homicide assault rate is now higher than than the 2.4% rate shared by Australia and New Zealand, which is exactly double the rate in the United States. (Unless I misread the numbers, however, the U.S. still leads all three in murders.) Meanwhile, the Vatican seems to have more criminal cases than residents -- though this is surely an artifact of its enormous non-resident tourist population and the petty thieves who prey upon them. There's serious disagreement about the impact of weapons legislation on violent crime, making it an ideal field for serious policy research.

When Scotland announces plans to strengthen knife control legislation, perhaps it's barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps the problem, like vehicular mortality in the United States, has cultural roots that require a national change in attitude and a broader public health intervention than a mere uptick in the mandatory minimum sentence.

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