Why Do Some People Shoot Other People? We Really Don’t Know.

In the past week I found media accounts of at least five cities which held community events to talk about gun violence.  The events are usually sponsored by a coalition of community groups, religious congregations, law enforcement representatives and the requisite political leadership from City Hall.  There will be some entertainment, probably a youth choir, a passionate, tug-at-your-heartstrings appeal from the mother or sibling of someone recently gunned down, and a “let’s get rid of the guns” rant from the head of the local Everytown group.  Pardon me if I’m sounding a little cynical, but I don’t see any real connection between these admittedly honest endeavors and any change in the rates at which we keep killing or wounding ourselves or others with guns.

I know, I know, the problem isn’t guns.  The problems are joblessness, hopelessness and all the other ness’s that pervade inner-city neighborhoods where the overwhelming amount of gun violence occurs.  Want to get rid of gun violence?  Get rid of the ghetto; it’s as simple as that.  But I’m not so sure that lifting sixty million people above the poverty line is such an easy task.  After all, we started trying to eradicate poverty after Michael Harrington published The Other America in 1962 and I think the only thing we’ve accomplished in that regard is to validate the old homily about how God loves the poor because He made so many of them.

gang boys chap 1                On the other hand, let’s not forget the fact that even if 11,000 people are killed with guns each year and another 50,000 are wounded, that gun violence is still a comparatively rare event.  In 2012, according to the UCR, there were roughly 10 million serious crimes against people and property committed in the U.S., of which 1/10th of one percent were gun homicides and another 1.5% were armed assaults.  So even though the chances of being the victim of a violent crime are about one person out of every thirty, the chances of being injured or killed with a gun are a lot less.  Which means that even in “high-crime” neighborhoods, there are an awful lot of people walking around with criminal intent who don’t use a gun.

That being the case, and the numbers don’t lie, we have to assume that the guys (and it’s almost always males) who do use a gun to damage someone else have made a conscious choice.  Because it’s not as if the shooters are the only people in the ghetto without a job; it’s not as if they are the only people in the neighborhood whose income doesn’t make it above the poverty line; it’s not as if they are the only ones without two parents in the home.  If this were the case, all we would have to do to solve the gun problem would be to get our hands on the U.S. Census neighborhood report, identify the folks who fit this down-and-out profile, and follow them around until they pull out their gun.

The problem really lies in the fact that we can do all the sociological research we want, we can amass and correlate all the data, and we still come smack up against one, unassailable problem; namely, we can’t talk to the people who pulled the trigger of the gun.  The victims are ready to talk from today to next year.  They’ll talk while they’re waiting for the EMT, they’ll talk while they’re being stitched up in the emergency room, they’ll talk at a community anti-violence event.  But the shooters won’t talk because: a) half of them aren’t found, and b) when they are apprehended the penal system and their lawyers won’t or can’t let them talk at all.

We need to figure out a way to get into the heads of the people whose behavior results in gun violence.  Most people, even criminals, don’t walk around with guns and even fewer use them in violent ways.  Until we understand what separates the shooters from everyone else by asking the shooters why they separated themselves from everyone else, we’ll have to hope that those anti-gun events make our streets and homes more safe.

 

 

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When Is A Crime Not A Crime? Beats Hell Outta Me.

Remember the old doggerel about if a tree fell in the forest and nobody heard it, did it really fall? I’m running into the same kind of problem in trying to understand the data on crime.  There are two agencies that publish crime data: the FBI (Uniform Crime Reports) and the BJS (National Crime Victimization Survey.) With one exception, all of this information comes from statements by crime victims who may or may not choose to report the crime. The one exception is homicide because it’s pretty tough to hide a dead body plus, given the severity of the crime, the moment we even think it has taken place, everyone gets into the act.  Otherwise, there isn’t a single category of serious (or non-serious) crime whose occurrence can be counted or even estimated without the cooperation of the victims themselves.

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I have been trying to figure out how many crimes really take place for two reasons. First, the question has become a big political football in the ongoing debate about guns.  The NRA and its allies claim that the drop in violent crime over the last twenty years demonstrates both the futility of more gun laws and the efficacy of concealed-carry permits as a further defense against crime.  The gun control crowd, on the other hand, points to the fact that although the overall rate of serious crime has declined, the homicide rate due to the proliferation of guns, is still much higher than we would like.

The second reason that I have been trying to figure this out lies in the disparity between crime data generated by the FBI as opposed to crime victim data produced by the BJS.  The gap between those two reports has narrowed considerably over the last number of years, but it is still significant enough to make me wonder whether the numbers can be trusted at all.  As a starter, let’s compare crime data for 2012, the most recent year for crime data published by both agencies.  According to the FBI, there were 1,214,462 homicides, forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults committed that year. According to the BJS, there were 2,084700 serious criminal victimizations that same year, and this number does not include the nearly 15,000 homicides reported by the FBI.  Now according to the BJS, virtually all the victmizations covered by their survey are reported to the police, but I since the data for this assertion is presented in terms of rates per 1,000 rather than raw numbers, I can’t really figure out why such a discrepancy between between the two reports exists.

And the discrepancy becomes much greater if we go back to the period when, according to both agencies, there was a lot more crime.  Let’s look at the data for 1996, which is considered the high-water mark for crime levels over the last two decades.  According to the FBI, there were 1,688,540 serious crimes reported in 1996, the number of 1996 victimizations, according to BJS, was 3,371,445 (adding the murders counted by the FBI.) In that year the difference between BJS and FBI numbers was 2:1, again, a discrepancy which neither agency seems able to explain.

But what this might explain are all the public polls which indicate that most people believe that violent crime in on the rise, even when the official numbers keep show that it is going down.  In a survey published last year during the debate over a new gun control law,  Pew found that a majority of Americans (56%) believed that crime was at higher levels than during the 1990’s, and only 12% thought it had gone down.

The difference between the data from the FBI and the BJS can’t just be dismissed as stemming from different definitions of crime or different methods of  data collection or different something else. You can, in fact, read a very detailed statement about the difference between the two sets of data published by the Department of Justice (which oversees both agencies) but it doesn’t offer even the slightest acknowledgement that the disparity in numbers published by the two agencies calls into question the accuracy of either one.