Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Violence Policy

Looking at news stories about violence in Chicago and its impact on Chicago gun control politics, it seemed worth looking into whether Chicago's highly-publicized murder rate for the partial-year 2013 placed it in a different league than other cities, and whether there was reason for optimism that the murders rate would be affected by the laws being proposed.

First: Forbes lists America's top-ten most-dangerous cities in order of violent crime rate – which is different than the murder rate. In the United States, our violent crime rate is generally lower than it is in the UK, but our murder rate is higher. That is, we have less violence, but its likelihood of proving fatal is higher when it does occur. With that in mind, Forbes claims Detroit tops America's most-dangerous cities (violent crimes occur 2.137 times per year per 100 population). Tenth on the list is Buffalo, with 1.238 violent crimes per year per 100 residents. Forbes doesn't give particulars, though, on the involvement of firearms or the extent of fatalities in the cities it lists. All the places on the list have hundreds of thousands in population, but the four largest cites aren't on the list. It offers little insight into Chicago.

Second: U.S. News and World Report looks at several years of historical data, including property crime data, to list America's eleven-most-dangerous cities. Of interest is that its ranking is based on an index in which 100 is the national average; the score, therefore, shows the percent of risk faced in the city, all things being equal. Tied for tenth place are Cleveland and Minneapolis with an index of 331. Interestingly, Minneapolis' murder rate is described as declining; it's the overall crime rate that drives the "danger" there. The same is true of Cleveland: over the 2006-2010 period of the data driving the rankings, Cleveland's homicides dropped 40%. According to US News & World Report, only burglary increased – and that was a 2% rise. In common with the Forbes list are several other cities, such as Baltimore (index 339), Memphis (index 361), Detroit (index 369), Birmingham (index 380), and Atlanta (index 484). But Atlanta isn't really a particular risk for violent crime. "violent crime rates in Atlanta were only slightly higher than the national figure. But property crimes were markedly higher, with motor vehicle theft 55 percent greater ... and burglary 38 percent greater." This list doesn't really help with the firearm-homicide question that drives the gun control debate.

An article at the Huffington Post in December compares Chicago's higher homicide rates to New York's falling figures.  Bullet points include that Chicago blames gang violence for the murder spike and says 80% of victims are African-American. New York's stop-and-frisk policies seem to reduce deaths and shootings.  The contrast between the nation's largest cities seems enormous: near the end of December, as Chicago approached its 500th murder of the year, New York – with three times the population – had suffered fewer overall murders with a record low of only 414 (since reliable records were first kept in 1963). Both New York and Chicago have histories of draconian gun-control laws, so the vast difference between their murder rates isn't attributable to official tolerance of armed citizens. New York's homicides included a 20% drop in deaths from bullets, down to 237 people. New York's achievement in homicide reduction is apparently attributable to prevention: Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly cites stop-and-frisk as successful in removing 8,000 illegal weapons from the streets, including 800 firearms. Shopkeepers like Dmitry Novosyolov report that when he sees kids, he sees them with parents; he attributes crime reduction to the presence of families rather than loners.

Chicago's homicides are down from the 928 Chicago recorded in 1991 when it was a felony to own a handgun and handguns were defined as unregisterable firearms. The current number is, however, the first time since 2008 that Chicago passed the 500 benchmark. At Northeastern Illinois University, assistant director of Inner City Studies Lance Williams attributes the increase in violence to the unraveling of societal fabric associated with ongoing trends in public housing and school policies in the West Side and in the South Side of Chicago – which every fan of Jim Croce knows "is the baddest part of town."  While firearms are described as widely-available, that's a claim people have laid nationwide. The longstanding hostility of Chicago law to handgun owners (and its requirement that all firearms be registered with a government office) seems to work against the claim that a handgun ban would have a material impact on Chicago violence.

The bigger problem in Chicago seems to be social. Violence is concentrated in parts of Chicago that are socially and geographically associated with trends unrelated to firearm legality, that have resulted in a resurgence of violence. New York seems to prove that enforcement of existing law is effective in preventing violence, just as Chicago proves that more draconian laws have little practical effect on the behavior of criminals.

Gun control is an area in which people reason with their gut more than with their brains, though. The cure for the problem is better data. Without solid data, we have little hope to develop rationally-founded policy.

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