The Brennan Center has just released an important and authoritative report on crime trends in the United States, and its discussion of the murder rate in major U.S. cities is particularly significant for the gun violence prevention (GVP) community. This is because guns are the tools of choice for people who commit homicides, and were it not for the use of guns in serious assaults, our homicide rate would not be 2 to 7 times higher than what occurs in the rest of the OECD.
The not so good news about the Brennan Report is that it is based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report whose data is admittedly less than exact. The really good news, on the other hand, is that the report focuses on murder, which is the one serious crime category for which the numbers are usually correct. The report covers 1991 through 2016, a period during which violent crime fell by roughly 50%, although the jury is still out in terms of explaining how and why such a significant drop actually took place. In fact, the best evaluation of the different ‘crime decline’ theories was also published by the Brennan Center in 2015.
The pro-gun community celebrated the crime decline after 1991 because it coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of personally-owned guns, particularly in the years following Obama’s electoral victory in 2008. In particular, the contrast between crime rates and gun-ownership numbers allowed Gun-nut Nation to promote one of its favorite narratives, namely, that more guns equals less crime because the ‘bad guys’ are afraid that anyone they attack might respond with a gun. It’s a clever argument but cannot be supported by data, credible studies or truth. Gee – what a surprise that pro-gun advocates would advance a theory which has no basis in facts.
The Brennan study, on the other hand, breaks down homicide data in the largest 30 American cities, but I wish the report would have contained an estimate for what percentage of all homicides occurred in these 30 sites, as well as a comparison between homicides which occurred within the cities themselves, as opposed to the relevant Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) in which these cities happen to be. A 2006-2007 CDC study found that for gun homicides, the MSA total was almost twice as high as specific city totals, and I am not sure that the UCR data can be analyzed to give a clear picture of homicide in MSAs.
But that’s a limitation of the FBI data, it’s not a criticism of the Brennan Center report itself. In fact, what the report clearly shows is that the recent spurt in homicides, which has provoked the usual hysteria from the latest gang of crime-fighters led by Donald Trump, is actually confined to a handful of cities, whereas the overall violent crime numbers in the U.S. keep going down.
The pro-gun gang would like to have it both ways. On the one hand they want to take credit for the continued crime decline by going on about how this trend is because so many people own and carry guns. On the other hand, they don’t miss any opportunity to promote the sale of more guns by reminding everyone that the ‘good guy,’ (a.k.a. the armed citizen) is what keeps the ‘bad guy’ away. And here is where the new Brennan study is so important, because it points out that the recent spurt in homicides has actually only occurred in three urban sites: Baltimore, Chicago and D.C. As for other major urban centers, murder is up in some, down in others, but there’s certainly no massive, national ‘crime wave’ of the sort that Trump and Sessions would like you to believe.
The Brennan researchers deserve our thanks for analyzing the FBI data in clear and convincing terms. But this still leaves us with the bigger question, namely, what do we do in cities like Baltimore, Chicago and DC? “I’ll send in the feds,” tweets Trump. Yea, right.