Jeff Sessions Starts Fighting A Crime Wave That Doesn’t Exist.

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Now that a leading crime-fighter has been installed as Attorney General, we can rest easy because the great crime wave sweeping America will come to an immediate halt. And if you don’t believe there’s a lot of violent crime out there, Donald Trump promised to “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities” if he were elected President. Which is kind of funny since a new report by the Brennan Center points out that with the exception of three cities – Chicago, Baltimore, DC – violent crime in the United States is at the lowest point of the last quarter-century, having declined by 50% since 1991.

sessions             But when was the last time you heard anything out of the White House which actually aligned with the facts? And when it comes to comments about crime the new Attorney General has even less regard for the truth than his boss. How could it be otherwise when he talked about New York City as one of nine jurisdictions that is “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime,” with the city seeing “gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city [being] ‘soft on crime.’”

Not only has Big Apple violent crime dipped to historic lows over the last several years, but much of this decrease is the result – ready? – of a major drop in gang crime, particularly gang shootings, which is exactly the reverse of what numbskull Sessions now claims. For the first time ever, shootings in New York City during 2016 dropped to below 1,000, with gang-related shootings dropping by 25% from the previous year, and gang-related gun homicides dropping almost 40% which brought the overall homicide number down to 335.

The Attorney General is lying when he says that New York City is suffering from a gang crime wave, because the New York City crime numbers are reported each year to the Feds. Sessions is pushing a ‘tough on crime’ agenda not only as an attempt to make it look like the Trump Administration is fixing yet another one of Obama’s mistakes, but he’s recklessly endorsing a ‘get tough’ crime policy which isn’t needed at all.

Another Brennan Center report on the new direction being taken by Trump and his minions points out that not only is violent crime at historic lows, but that the ‘get tough’ approach “contradicts the emerging consensus among conservatives, progressives, law enforcement, and researchers that the country’s incarceration rate is too high, and that our over-reliance on prison is not the best way to address crime.”

There is some truth to the idea that while violent crime is going down, illegal drug-use is going up. But these are very different drugs from what fueled the explosion of crack-cocaine in the early 1990’s because this time much of the current drug products are opioids, which even though they come from overseas (mainly China) represent a much different type of drug problem both in terms of cause and response. And while the Brennan report finds some evidence that Sessions understands the need to tie more comprehensive treatment rather than harsher punishments to the increase in opioid use, the rhetoric coming out of his office continues to focus primarily on a ‘get tough’ approach to all crime.

What’s really behind this new policy to ‘get touch’ on crime? First is the cynical and wholly-politicized strategy to sell the idea that Trump is making America ‘great’ again by sweeping away all the political detritus of the Obama ‘regime.’ Second is the attempt to wrap crime policy around immigration because most immigrants are here illegally which makes them more prone to commit crimes (which in fact is not one but two Trump lies.)

If Sessions was really serious about reducing crime, he’d sit down with New York City’s top cop, James O’Neill, and ask him to explain why the city’s crime rates are so low. But what Sessions is really serious about is helping his boss convince us that every time he tells a lie he’s revealing a new truth.

The Brennan Center Gives Us An Impotant Report On Violent Crime.

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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.

urban             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.

Want To Play Fast And Loose With Facts? Follow What The NRA Says About Guns.

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If it weren’t for the fact that the NRA continues to make public statements that are at such variance with the truth, I would probably cease responding to their continued efforts to persuade America that more guns are good, less guns are bad.  Because all their talk and all their noise hasn’t convinced an increasing share of Americans to own guns, even if public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe that gun ownership makes us safe. The NRA’s latest flight from reality is their response to Obama’s speech delivered in Chicago to the annual meeting of the IACP.  As usual, the President lamented the failure of Congress to pass new gun-control laws, and since the NRA would prefer there were no laws regulating the sale or ownership of guns, if Obama says yes, they have to say no.

The NRA’s nay-saying began by actually agreeing with the President when he said that crime rates had fallen to historic lows.  I suspect, incidentally, that when the crime numbers are published for 2015 (Obama was referring to crime stats for 2013), we will see the downward trend reversed.  According to my friends at the Gun Violence Archive, the number of gun homicides this year has already surpassed all of 2014, and we have a couple of months still to go, plus the GVA has no choice but to understate the actual number given that it compiles real-time data from unofficial (i.e., media) reports.

Best gun salesman ever!

Of course whatever the true gun violence number turns out to be, the NRA will remind us that the number would be much higher because the current downward trend is due to the ownership of all those guns.  One can’t argue the fact that there has been a 50% reduction in violent crime over the last twenty years, a period that has also witnessed somewhere around 150 million new guns getting into civilian hands.  But the NRA has never been one to caution its supporters that coincidence and causality are two very different words, and the Brennan Center’s very careful study of the causes for the decline in crime found “no evidence” that increased gun ownership or the issuance of concealed-carry licenses made any difference at all.

But I want to say something here that I have been saying to my GVP friends again and again; the effort to promote gun regulations both at the federal level and within individual states is grounded in the notion that public policies should flow from a commitment to evidence-based information, or what we call ‘facts.’  Not that both sides necessarily agree on the facts, but at least there should be some acknowledgement on both sides that facts are an indispensable component in any public-policy debate.

The problem is that, generally speaking, the NRA could care less about facts.  After all, they are in the business of promoting gun ownership and as long as what they say about guns doesn’t create legal threats to their welfare, it really doesn’t matter whether what they say bears any relation to the truth.  I’ll give you a couple of examples from this NRA-ILA screed.

The NRA states that the President insulted the intelligence of the American people by ‘ridiculously’ asserting that “it is easier for young people in some communities to find a gun than to find fresh vegetables at the supermarket.”  What’s so insulting about that?  Inner-city neighborhoods are notoriously devoid of fresh, nutritious foods; they are also notorious for the ease with which one can pick up an illegal gun.  In contrast, according to the NRA, a law-abiding individual has to undergo a background check and fill out a “six-page federal form.”  Actually, the buyer fills out one page, four of the remaining five pages are instructions and boilerplate always attached to all federal forms.

I’m not saying that the GVP community should detach itself from a commitment to facts.  But they should not operate under any illusion that fact-based arguments will yield a fact-based response from the other side. Don’t worry – it won’t.



Does the Brennan Center Crime Report Break New Ground?

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The good news about crime is that not only has it declined by more than 50% in the last two decades, but notwithstanding a slowing in the rate of decline from year to year, the overall trends keep going down.  The latest national estimate published by the FBI for 2013 shows a drop of 4.4% in violent crime from 2012, which translates into a twenty-year drop of more than fifty percent.  The decline in cities like New York and Los Angeles is even more dramatic, with reductions in violent crime, particularly homicide, of more than 70 percent.

Trying to figure out the reasons for this decline has spawned a veritable cottage industry engaging scholars from every relevant academic field.  Out of this handiwork has emerged 16 theories considered by the research community to have some degree of validity, and now for the first time a study has been published by the Brennan Center which attempts to determine the relative degree to which each theory can be used to explain the crime decline as a whole.  Unfortunately, what the Brennan report shows is that none of the theories appears to explain anything more than a marginal change in serious crime, and the factor that has been cited most consistently for its positive impact on crime over the past twenty years – incarceration – may actually have the reverse effect.

jails                According to the Brennan researchers, the positive correlation between rates of incarceration and rates of violent crime probably ended around 2000, with the continued growth of the prison population having no effect on crime rates at all.  This is confirmed by looking at states in which the size of the prison population has declined, but violent crime rates have continued to go down.  The result is what Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz calls “not only inhumane, it is an economic folly.”

The other major issue examined by Brennan is the use of CompStat and other digital, data-driven policing methods that first started in New York and appear to be responsible for a 5 to 15 percent crime decrease in cities where it has been deployed.  The problem with this finding, however, is that crime also declined more or less to the same degree in cities that didn’t adopt CompStat, and in cities that did adopt the CompStat system, the most significant declines in crime rates took place before it was deployed, or occurred simultaneously with significant ( and costly) increases in the number of police.

The real problem with the whole school of American crime-decline is that the phenomenon is hardly unique to America at all.  Crime in England has dropped by almost 50% in the last twenty years, ditto in the European Union, where the drop in crime over the last ten years is almost the same as in the United States. And Europe has neither increased its incarceration rates nor jumped on the Compstat bandwagon as is the case in many cities throughout the US.  It should also be mentioned that Europe has not experienced anywhere near the degree of economic recovery that has occurred here since 2008, yet crime rates everywhere in the EU continue to fall.

In all of the research on crime that is summarized by Brennan, one great omission stands out.  According to the FBI, violent crimes fell from 1,857,670 in 1994 to 1,214,464 in 2012, and over that same period, serious property crimes dropped from 12,131,873 to 8,975,438. Which means that over this period of time, 3,798,846 serious crimes were not committed because crime rates kept going down.  If Brennan is correct and incarceration accounted for a 5%-7% decline in crime, then somewhere around 200,000 of these crimes weren’t committed because the people who otherwise might have committed these crimes were in jail.  But this means that several million would-be perpetrators chose a different path.  With all due respect to theories about policing, abortions, CCW, lead paint and all the rest, shouldn’t we figure out a way to talk to them?


Book Review: Michael Waldman’s 2nd Amendment – A Biography

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I started to read Michael Waldman’s book, The Second Amendment, A Biography, with a certain amount of trepidation, because if nothing else, here’s someone who hits the ground running when it comes to anything having to do with public policy. And whether its voting rights, or election financing reform, or same-sex marriage or just about any other domestic policy that liberals want to own, Waldman has been in the thick of the argument ever since he took over the Brennan Center in 2005.

Why trepidation?  Because although Waldman may have actually shot a rifle at least one time, let’s just say that he’s not much of a gun guy and his friends and policy associates don’t spend Friday afternoons popping some tops down at Franzey’s Bar & Grill.

Now don’t get me wrong.  You don’t have to be a gun guy to say something smart about guns.  But Waldman’s resume reads like the exact opposite of someone who would give gun owners a break, and let’s not forget that he runs a public policy institute named after a Supreme Court justice who probably would have been just as happy if the 2nd Amendment didn’t exist.  So I figured the book to be just another one of those “it’s time to defang the NRA” deals, with the usual elixir of anti-gun proposals like more background checks, another assault weapons ban and, for good measure, let’s get rid of all the damn things anyway.

scalia                I was wrong.  Leaving aside the early chapters on the how’s and why’s the 2nd Amendment even got into the Constitution, the book’s real strength is Waldman’s ability to tie the narrative of recent gun jurisprudence to the general rightward drift of American politics and American law.  I have been waiting for someone to explain how judges like Scalia defend the notion of 2nd Amendment ‘originalism’ in order to promote a conservative, current-day agenda and Waldman nails this one to the wall. Going back to the 1980’s, he charts the confluence of conservative energies represented by politicized evangelicals, right-wing think tanks and specific-interest groups like the NRA, all combining to support a judicial agenda that seeks to roil back or dilute progressive programs and reforms.

It’s not so much that gun control is at the top of the progressive agenda; it ebbs and flows as high-profile shootings come and go.  But a majority of gun owners, particularly people for whom guns are a serious part of their life-styles, tend to be politically conservative anyway, so using fears of gun restrictions to enlist them in the anti-liberal crusade works every time.

A close reading of sources from the debates over the Bill of Rights makes clear that individual gun ownership represented the ability of citizens to protect and defend their political rights; rights to free speech, free assembly, due process and the like.  But the argument for gun ownership advanced by the NRA today, Olliver North’s appeals to patriotism notwithstanding, is based on the alleged social value of guns to protect us against crime.  The NRA would never argue that the Glock in my pocket should be used to stop cops from coming through the door, but they insist that the same Glock is my first line of defense when a bad guy breaks down that same door.

Waldman clearly understands that by using the 2nd Amendment to justify gun ownership as a defense against crime, the pro-gun community has successfully restated the history of the 2nd Amendment to buttress a contemporary social justification for owning guns. Neither will be readily undone as long as gun control advocates believe they can respond to this strategy by stating and restating the “facts.”  Remember “it’s the economy, stupid?”  Now “it’s the guns.”

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