Simple Solutions to a Complex Crime Problem

My dinner companion asked me how I felt about crime in New York City, a topic that comes up more often these days not only among New Yorkers but also from others when they learn I live in Brooklyn. The question usually implies that New York crime is rampant, and the city is dangerously unsafe.

I want to reply, “Of course, crime is prevalent in New York; we have all these people working in the financial industries.” But, of course, that’s not the kind of crime they are talking about. They are speaking of the kinds of crimes that are committed on the streets that aren’t Wall Street.

When a non-New Yorker makes comments about the city’s crime, I assume I am talking with a person who watches a lot of Fox News, but I know that that is not true for my crime-commenting NYC friends, who certainly are not conservative. I ask my fellow residents whether they or family members or even acquaintances have been recent crime victims, and uniformly the answer has been no. I remember a time some years ago when that same question would have produced recitals of victimhood.

Even though untouched personally by crime, many of my friends know people or are among those people who won’t ride the subways because of perceived rampant crime. And this highlights some of the special relationship between crime and New Yorkers. I have friends who choose other means of transportation over the subway, but I also know people who will not enter the trains under any circumstances. Period. It’s true: if you ride the subways enough, you will see untoward things. True now. True always. Have the bad incidents increased dramatically? I don’t know but not in my personal experience. A friend who recently gave up the subways did it at a time that transit officials maintained that crime had not increased on the trains. But it was also at a time when local news outlets increasingly reported subway crimes. It certainly seemed that danger had increased on the trains, whether it had or not. Think, though. If you are or have been a commuter or an otherwise regular user of a car, how often during the last several months, did the news media report about a serious accident on your network of roads? How often did you witness or were told about a dangerous incident—a car suddenly cutting in front of another one to make an exit or weaving about or tailgating or driving too fast? My guess is that scary road incidents in Atlanta and Dallas and many other places far exceed the dangerous incidents on the New York subway. Someone can check this out for me, but I believe that more people are killed and hurt in car accidents in this country than they are in crimes. Few people, however, decide not to drive because of highway violence even though they are much more likely to die or be injured that way than a New Yorker is by a subway or street crime. I am not immune to these patterns. Like most of us, I am not good at assessing risk. Even though I intellectually know that if I die or am hurt violently, it is more likely to be on my drive to Pennsylvania than on the subway, the report of a subway crime makes me feel more vulnerable and concerned for my safety than seeing the remains of a car crash on Route 280.   

There is, of course, crime in New York City that causes concerns and perhaps it has increased recently, but statistics show that the New York crime rate is lower than in other major cities and much lower than it was a generation ago. However New Yorkers, regular Americans, and news media don’t talk about other cities as much as they do about New York. A lot of weird and bad things can, and perhaps generally do, happen each week in New York, but I wonder if we collected all the similar news from places with a comparable population, whether we would find nearly as many weird and frightening things. For example, if each week you heard all that kind of news from all parts of Wisconsin, would you feel that Wisconsin is a dangerous place to live? The local paper from my birthplace reported that there was a shooting this last week in Sheboygan, which contains a tiny fraction of the state’s population. How many similar violent episodes were there in the entire state, and how would that compare to New York? I saw a report recently that there had been two mass shootings this year in New York City (population 8.4 million). Bad, yes. However, Wisconsin (population 5.9 million) had six; Colorado (6.0 million) had five; and Louisiana (4.6 million) had nine. But because one of the mass shootings in New York occurred on a subway in Brooklyn, it got national coverage. Most mass shootings don’t even make more than the local news these days.

Even with these statistics, we don’t tend to ask whether Wisconsin is dangerous and crime ridden. We might ask that about specific places in the state, but the state covers too much territory to think about it in those terms. The Janesville resident is unlikely to be concerned about a shooting in Wausau or Rhinelander. It may be surprising to you that the homicide rate in Florida is higher than it is in New York. But Florida encompasses many more square miles than New York City, and so you are only concerned about the small area of the state in which you live or where you visit. Similarly, a robbery or even a killing in the East Tremont section of the Bronx does not affect me. I don’t believe I have ever been there, and I can’t see how the event can make my life more dangerous. However, it will make it into the New York crime statistics, and when I see that crime is increasing in the city, it can make me feel more apprehensive even when few, if any, of the crimes truly affect me.

(continued September 23)

Gun Violence/Gun Safety

          The term “gun violence” misleads. There is not a single violence problem; there are several. Gun violence includes mass shootings, but the term should also refer to suicide by firearms, which takes more lives than homicides in this country. Urban shootings are also part of the violence as are family killings. It is important to recognize the different problems because the motivations for them vary. Important, too, to understand that different firearms are involved in the different settings. Because there are different problems, there can be no one solution or even one palliative for “gun violence.” We can, however, hope to have reforms that serve to decrease violence in a particular area. With enough incremental reforms a significant dent can be made in our national shame.

          A discussion of gun violence should recognize that there is a constitutional right “to keep and bear arms.”  The goal for those wishing to decrease gun violence should be to make it more likely guns are used safely rather than to take guns away from responsible people. A recent column by Nicholas Kristoff offers many sensible proposals. Opinion | These Gun Reforms Could Save 15,000 Lives. We Can Achieve Them. – The New York Times (nytimes.com) None of these possibilities is “the solution” to gun violence—there is no such thing. However, incremental improvements in gun safety can add up to a real difference. Increasing the age to buy assault rifles will not by itself make a huge difference in gun violence, but it may lessen gun deaths and injuries a little. Requiring all who buy guns to have background checks will not make a huge difference, but perhaps things will improve somewhat. Better  reporting of felony and domestic violence convictions will not make a huge difference, but it might help some. Limiting the size of magazines will not make a large difference, but perhaps some lives will be saved. If we make enough little changes, we might end up strides ahead of where we are now.

          Here’s my suggestion for an incremental improvement: Make it a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated. Of course, carrying a gun is not the same as using it, but even carrying one while drunk should be prohibited because the decision whether to use a carried firearm should not be made when a person is intoxicated. The consequences should be similar to drunken driving. Perhaps a first conviction would be a misdemeanor, but just as driving licenses are suspended for a period for a DUI, the right to possess guns would be suspended for a period, and all guns owned by the offender placed in police custody during that time. A second conviction would be a felony, and the person could no longer possess guns. . . and might even go to jail.

          Frequently after a car mishap, the driver gets tested for intoxication. The same should happen after gun accidents. Each year at least a few people are hurt or killed in hunting accidents when there has been too much drinking, and perhaps that problem can be lessened.

          Those who favor the status quo on gun violence often proclaim that new gun safety measures will not accomplish anything. Sometimes this is an act of misdirection. They might say, for example, that age restrictions on the purchase of an AR-15 will do little about urban gun violence because assault weapons are hardly ever the firearms used on city streets. The response should be–once again–that there is no single solution to gun violence, but that the different components of gun violence must be addressed in different ways to make incremental increases in safety in all the areas.

          Gun safety advocates need to shape the debate on the effectiveness of reform. Part of it might be mockery. Those of us who regularly read The Onion are familiar with its headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where It Regularly Happens.” But more data-driven responses should also be regularly presented, such as was done in the New York Times recently. The study indicated that up to a third of mass shootings might not have happened or could have been less deadly if simple reforms had been in place—such as universal background checks, no extended magazines, and no sale of guns, or at least assault weapons, to those under twenty-one. None of these would have removed guns from responsible people.

          A few days after a mass shooting, a story often appears telling us about the “warning signs” exhibited by the shooter missed by the “authorities” implying that the shooting could have, or perhaps should have, been prevented. In considering the “warning signs,” however, there is a hindsight bias. We know that the shooter has slaughtered many people, and that makes the missed warning signs seem especially egregious. But we need to evaluate “warning signs” before the violence, not after. Many people engage in the behavior that are called warning signs after a mass shooting and almost none of them become murderers. . We need to find the predicters of future gun violence. How often are the signs accurate? How often do they produce false positives? What are the responses that lessen the possibility of future violence? How often are such warning signs reported to law enforcement or other agencies? What resources does it take to respond? Where do the resources come from? What responses will politicians legally authorize? We need to know more.

(concluded June 10)