I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon — his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
Edna St. Vincent Millary
Like many people, I’ve been reflecting on the horrible murders that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School not quite two weeks ago. There’s a natural human need to search for order in the chaotic, to winnow morals from events, to devise solutions to problems and the reactions to these murders reflect that need. For many, having formed their opinions long since, the murders are nails, waiting for a hammer they’ve long had at the ready.
I think the reality is discouraging. Considered narrowly, a “pseudocommando” spree killer who expects or even intends to die in an attack on a soft target, clearly the situation in Newtown, probably cannot be stopped.
Considered more broadly, the intentional homicide rate in the United States is appallingly high—according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime the highest among major developed economies at 4.2 per 100,000 population per year. I don’t believe that the solutions that are being proposed are well-suited to the problem but they do provide some insights into the views of those proposing them.
One point-of-view is that the problem is just too many guns. I don’t believe that view stands up to scrutiny for a number of reasons. If it were true, I would think that as the number of guns increases, so would the number of gun homicides. That isn’t the case:
The number of guns in the U.S. surged from 192 million in 1994 to 310 million in 2009. That includes 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There are now about as many firearms in the U.S. as people. These stats have been widely reported. What has not been so widely reported is that the number of firearm-related homicides fell from 17,073 in 1993 to 9,903 in 2011 (up slightly from 9,812 in 2010). Per capita, the gun-related murder rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past two decades.
Additionally, I would think that, since gun ownership by whites in America is nearly twice that by blacks, that homicides by whites would be higher than by blacks. That isn’t the case, either. Indeed, despite African Americans constituting a far smaller proportion of the population than whites, there are approximately as many black homicide offenders as there are white each year.
The nature of victims, too, differs by race. Whites are more likely to kill their wives, kids, or coworkers. Homicides by blacks are more likely to be drug-related.
The homicide rate with white offenders is about the same in the United States as it is in Switzerland or Germany. If the homicide rate with black offenders were only to fall to the same level as the homicide rate with white offenders, our homicide rate would be about the same as New Zealand, Australia, or Canada.
If white Americans are arming themselves in fear of attack by black American, they are mistaken. Murder is almost exclusively intraracial and property crimes increasingly so. White murder victims are likely to have been killed by other whites; black victims have almost certainly been killed by other blacks.
I am emphatically not saying that I think that our high rates of homicide or gun homicide are intrinsically racial. I am saying that we have a social problem and that social problem is racial.
Whether the reason for high homicide rates is due to poverty or income inequality is controversial:
While cross-sectional regressions exhibited a positive relationship between the Gini coefficient and crime rates, first differencing regressions found negative or insignificant coefficients for this variable. These divergent results suggest either that 10-year time-series changes are different from long-term equilibrium cross-sectional relationships (which seems unlikely), or that coefficient estimates are biased in both regression specifications. Whether the biases offset each other, resulting in a null hypothesis, is not known. Nevertheless, these results suggest that greater attention should be given to identifying the many factors affecting crime before one concludes that income inequality is the culprit.
Translated from the sociologese: income inequality is not the first place to look for high homicide rates. See also here.
My own view is that Pat Moynihan was right many years ago and the disintegration of the black family has had serious implications for society as a whole. The large number of households headed by single women and the difficulty young black men encounter in finding jobs may lead them to seek social support and affirmation from gangs that support themselves through criminal activity (a very high proportion of homicides by young black men are drug-related).
So, I agree with Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Let’s tighten up on guns sales in the secondary market. But, while we’re thinking about how to reduce the number of people be murdered in the United States, let’s be more frank about the actual sources of our problems. We have serious social problems and it’s about time we addressed them.