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John Roman Helen Ho
| Posted: July 12th, 2013
In my last blog post, I wrote about how reminding prisoners on their way out of prison that their DNA has been collected and stored in a database can reduce their future offending. However, the way that it’s actually been playing out in practice won’t deter people from committing crimes.
Simply informing convicted offenders that you have their DNA is insufficient to change their behavior. In order for their behavior to change, the convicted offender must be convinced that the collection and retention of their DNA evidence will increase (substantially) the likelihood that they will be caught for offending in the future.
And there’s the rub. While the United States is increasingly relying on DNA evidence to convict offenders who would otherwise go free, it doesn’t happen very often.
And the reason why it doesn’t happen very often is that we are using DNA databases in an extremely inefficient way. We spend way too much money using DNA to aid investigations it mainly can’t help, and way too little solving crimes whose offenders can cause bigger social harms.
Prosecutors are especially motivated to use DNA in murder cases because of the crime’s seriousness. This is a very ineffective use of DNA testing because there is often no transfer of biological material from the assailant to the victim. A typical murder in the U.S. involves a firearm (about two-thirds of the time), and typically there is no physical interaction between the victim and the assailant. Other biological evidence left behind—DNA from a cigarette butt, hair in a hat—can link a person to a place, but doesn’t say anything about when they were at that place. None of this is to say DNA can never aid a homicide investigation, only that it is often a long shot.
DNA is much more efficacious in a burglary investigation—if investigators find your cigarette butt in a house right after it’s been burgled, you’re sunk. And our research at the Urban Institute finds that DNA test to be relatively inexpensive—as little as $3,500 to catch a felon.
And yet, we find that DNA evidence is about 10,000 times more likely to be processed from a homicide scene than from a residential burglary. Unfortunately, DNA testing resources are limited, and the focus on homicide crowds out testing DNA in burglary investigations.
While homicides cause many times more harm to society than burglary, it does not justify the lack of DNA processing of evidence from a burglary. For the disparity to be justified, the future harms prevented from solving a homicide would have to be 10,000 times greater than from solving a burglary.
They aren’t. They are in fact about the same. It turns out that burglary offenders nabbed by DNA average about three prior felony convictions, often for violent crimes. And they aren’t specialists—they rape, rob, and kill too. They are dangerous offenders who should be a much bigger priority for law enforcement and prosecutors.
And the link back to “we’ve got your DNA”? We’d nab more bad guys if we tested DNA from burglaries rather than murders, making the threat from DNA collection and retention much more real— and thus we would deter more future offending.
DNA illustration from Shutterstock.
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life |Tags: burglary, crime, DNA, DNA collection, DNA database, DNA evidence, helen ho, john roman, preventing crime Add a Comment »
| Posted: July 9th, 2013
In Nudge, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discuss how the government can help citizens make better decisions by acting as “choice architects” who have “the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Throughout the social sciences, academics are thinking about how this simple idea can be used to frame choices for the people who receive public services. Policymakers are reframing how they see the consumers of their services; instead of being viewed as passive recipients of government programs, these individuals – whether they are prisoners, drug addicts, or chronically homeless - are increasingly considered clients within the system, for whom choices can thoughtfully be framed.
One useful application of this concept is to consider how prisoners’ decision-making processes can be shaped to reduce crime. This can potentially be done by leveraging the power of one of the most effective investigative tools of the day: DNA evidence. Over the last decade, most states have expanded their DNA collection programs to include most convicted offenders, as well as some arrestees, in their databases. Evidence from crime scenes can then be matched against these databases to identify and apprehend otherwise unknown suspects. Our research at the Urban Institute has found that the collection and processing of DNA evidence can increase the probability of identifying an unknown suspect tenfold. Clearly, the effectiveness of criminal investigations can be greatly enhanced through the use of this technology.
In addition to apprehending suspects, this technology may have an additional benefit of deterring offenders from committing future crimes. The logic of deterrence is straightforward: A rational actor will commit a crime only if he or she perceives that the benefits of doing so exceed the costs. If people leaving prisons are rational actors, the knowledge that their DNA has been collected and retained for future investigations should, in theory, cause them to commit fewer crimes by increasing their perceived risk of engaging in criminal activity.
In practice, however, the business of shaping offenders’ behavior is much more complicated. Much debate exists among criminologists, sociologists, and economists about the extent to which criminal offenders truly are rational actors. Some argue that people who commit crimes have poor decision-making skills and place a low value on their future. A recent study conducted by Avi Bhati investigated the deterrent effects of DNA evidence by testing whether adding a convicted offender to a DNA database changed their subsequent behavior. He found that while adding someone to a database greatly increased the chance that they would be identified during a criminal investigation, it had virtually no effect on their future offending.
Although deterrence theory is not without controversy, many new criminal justice interventions are predicated on the concept that offenders behave as rational actors. Modeled off the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program, recent interventions are based on the simple idea that if the certainty of sanctions increases, offenders will commit fewer infractions. HOPE puts this principle into practice by drug testing probationers and responding immediately to any positive tests, often with a short stay in jail. By increasing the costs of drug use in this way, HOPE tips the cost-benefit balance away from crime and reduces offending.
The success of HOPE indicates that offenders may, in fact, respond to deterrent tactics when the threat of punishment is certain and closely follows the crime. So why did Bhati find that collecting offenders DNA does not deter? It may be that their DNA was collected too far in the past to affect their post-release offending. The solution is to make the threat of punishment clearer and more immediate. The intervention, then, is simple: Offenders need to be made aware of the effectiveness of DNA evidence in apprehending suspects and reminded that their DNA can be used to aid future criminal investigations. These messages should be delivered frequently and strategically, such as while offenders are transitioning out of prison and at their subsequent parole meetings. By making offenders more aware of the risks of participation in further criminal activity, DNA evidence may be able to become a powerful, low-cost tool to deter future crime as well as apprehend suspects.
Illustration by Tim Meko/The Urban Institute.
Filed under: Crime |Tags: Avi Bhati, Cass Sunstein, criminal investigation, DNA, DNA collection, DNA database, DNA evidence, Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, john roman, Nudge, reducing crime, Richard Thaler, solving crime 2 Comments »
| Posted: June 26th, 2013
The partisan divide is as deep today as it perhaps has ever been. Even so, as demonstrated by the swift closing of the political gap on gay marriage, the landscape can change rapidly.
The next big sea change seems relatively easy to predict: Large-scale reductions in mass incarceration. Gone are the days when the only voices around sentencing and incarceration were shouting get-tough-on-crime messages. After tripling over two generations, there’s been little growth in prison populations in the last five years. There’s even some evidence of a rollback. The tough-on-crime message has largely been replaced by silence, but calls for change are growing.
Led by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, Right on Crime seeks to reduce the number of prisons and prisoners to fight crime, prioritize victims, and protect taxpayers.
Democrats have long argued for prison reform, with the most recent charge being led by former Senator Jim Webb, who charged that mass incarceration does not prevent crime and ravages communities.
And there is near universal agreement among academics that regardless of whether mass incarceration prevents crime, it does not do so in a cost-effective way. In particular, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative seeks to help state and local governments reduce their prison populations and costs.
All the ingredients are there—political, fiscal, and empirical—for a rapid change to much more efficient and effective policies. Perhaps it will take a generation before mass incarceration seems as anachronistic as chain gangs, but that change seems inevitable.
Prison image from Shutterstock.com. Graphic by Tim Meko, Urban Institute.
Filed under: Crime, Government |Tags: bipartisan, crime, DOMA, justice policy, mass incarceration, policy shift, prison, prison population, prison reform 2 Comments »
| Posted: June 10th, 2013
Last Monday, the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) upheld a Maryland law that allows the collection of DNA from individuals arrested for serious crimes.
On the same day, the Urban Institute released its own research on the policies, practices, and implications of collecting DNA at arrest. Two of the studies’ authors, Justice Policy Center Senior Fellow Julie Samuels and Research Associate Dwight Pope, discussed their research and some of the implications of the Court’s decision.
What’s the status of arrestee DNA collection in the United States?
Over the past decade, there’s been a large increase in DNA profiles in the National DNA Index System (NDIS). Many are associated with individuals whose DNA was collected at arrest or charging, which is authorized through legislation passed by Congress and more than half the states throughout the country.
Though it’s been argued that the practice is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for those arrested for serious crimes. Some states may have been waiting to see how the case was decided, so it’s possible that more will adopt arrestee DNA legislation.
In theory, collecting DNA from arrestees effectively expands DNA databases because you’re drawing from a larger population. An underlying assumption is that more DNA profiles in databases will lead to more opportunities for profiles to be linked to evidence from unsolved crimes.
Another assumption is that by collecting DNA sooner in a case—for example, at arrest—crimes may be solved faster.
Who can be subjected to DNA collection?
It depends on the state. Thirteen collect from all felonies, while fourteen limit collection to a subset of felonies, typically involving violence, sexual assault, and property crimes. Seven also collect from individuals arrested or charged with select misdemeanors. One state, Oklahoma, authorizes DNA collection at arrest from “any alien unlawfully present under federal immigration law.”
Federal law authorizes collection from all arrestees and non-US citizens detained by the US government.
What about those who are arrested, but ultimately not charged with, or convicted of, a crime?
In most states that authorize DNA collection from arrestees, individuals who are not charged or convicted may request that their DNA profile be removed from the database. It’s up to them to initiate the process, which usually requires obtaining a court order that is then sent to the laboratory.
Labs in these states have indicated that few removals (or expungements, as they’re officially called) actually occur, effectively resulting in profiles that are stored in the database for an indeterminate amount of time.
A few laws (like Maryland’s) require the state to automatically remove an arrestee DNA profile from the database if the individual isn’t charged or convicted. Automatic expungement can be resource-intensive for laboratories, as they are generally responsible for tracking case outcomes in these states.
What are some of the challenges to implementation?
The two biggest challenges are costs and time, with most of the burden falling on the state labs, which will need to hire and train new staff, change existing processes, and train collection agencies. Implementation will likely also result in more administrative work, such as verifying sample eligibility, identifying duplicate submissions, and monitoring compliance.
Is arrestee DNA collection actually worth it? Does it result in more convictions?
It’s hard to say. Most states do not reclassify arrestee profiles as convicted offender profiles upon conviction. A match—or hit—linking an arrestee profile to crime scene evidence may occur after the individual has been convicted and would have submitted a sample anyway. At the NDIS level, the FBI does not yet report data on hits associated with arrestee profiles.
Most states that provided data for this study indicated the number of hits associated with arrestee profiles, but they didn’t break down the data further to identify how many were associated with profiles from arrestees who were not subsequently convicted, or how many occurred between arrest and conviction.
Two states were able to determine the number of hits attributed to arrestee profiles that would not have occurred—or would have occurred later—if DNA was only collected upon conviction. In these states, arrestee profiles did increase the number of resulting hits, investigations aided, and successful prosecutions.
DNA image from Shutterstock.
Filed under: Crime |Tags: arrestee, crime, DNA, justice, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
| Posted: June 5th, 2013
Trayvon Martin’s death was by any measure a tragedy. In the aftermath, a spotlight has shone on what had been a relatively obscure change in law about when a homicide is legally considered to be justified. Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws have been passed in 23 states and, to varying degrees, extend the right to use lethal force in self-defense outside of the home.
Last week, the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights voted to undertake an inquiry to determine whether SYG laws introduce racial bias into decisions about whether a homicide is justified. The American Bar Association National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws is holding a series on public meetings, including one Thursday, June 6 in Philadelphia as part of its inquiry. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ABA task force).
SYG laws extend the Castle Doctrine—which allows for the use of lethal force in the defense of your home—to public spaces. Some further extend the rights of the shooter by not allowing police to arrest a shooter unless they have probable cause that their claim of self-defense is untrue. These laws, in effect, move determinations of justice from a deliberate process in the courts to a chaotic one at a crime scene. Many are concerned that this will introduce racial bias into the process.
Last year, I analyzed FBI data from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) from 2005 to 2009. Most crime data is reported as aggregate monthly data, but the SHR data describe characteristics of the perpetrator, the victim, and the facts of the case (such as whether a firearm was used) in most homicides. Analyzing these data, I found that SYG laws change how often shootings are ruled to be justified and that they are associated with racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings.
At the time, SHR data were only available through 2009, which meant that there were little data available after many new SYG laws were enacted. Data from 2010 are now available. Here’s what we learn when we crunch those numbers.
Overall, less than 2 percent of homicides are ruled to have been self-defense. However, in SYG states after SYG enactment, it is closer to three percent, and in non-SYG states, it is close to one percent (that difference is statistically significant).
Are there are racial disparities in justifiable homicide rulings? Out of 53,000 homicides in the database, 23,000 have a white shooter and a white victim. The shooting is ruled to have been justified in a little more than 2 percent of cases. In states with a SYG law (after enactment), the shooting is ruled to be justified in 3.5 percent of cases, compared to less than 2 percent in non-SYG states. In cases where both the victim and shooter are black, the numbers are almost identical, if slightly lower.
When the shooter and victim are of different races, there are substantial differences in the likelihood a shooting is ruled to be justified. When the shooter is black and the victim is white, the shooting is ruled justified in about 1 percent of cases, and is actually slightly lower in non-SYG states. Between 2005 and 2010, there were 1,210 homicides with a black shooter and a white victim—the shooting was ruled to be justified in just 17 of them (about 1 percent).
The story is completely different when there is a white shooter and a black victim. In the same time period, there were 2,069 shootings where the shooter was white and the victim black. The homicide was ruled to be justified in 236 cases (11 percent). In SYG states, almost 17 percent of white-on-black shootings were ruled to be justified.
Finally, I tested whether these racial disparities remained when we controlled for whether the victim and perpetrator were strangers, the state where the incident occurred, the year of the homicide, and whether the shooting occurred in a SYG state. The racial disparities remain large and significant. In fact, the odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.
No dataset will ever be sufficient to prove that race alone explains these disparities. But there are disparities in whether homicides are ruled to be self-defense, and race is clearly an important part of the story.
Filed under: Crime |Tags: homicide, race, stand your ground, SYG, Trayvon Martin, Urban Institute 9 Comments »
| Posted: May 24th, 2013
Yesterday afternoon, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, joined Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Chief Thomas Manger of the Montgomery County Police Department, and The Urban Institute’s Nancy La Vigne for a panel discussion on 21st century drug policy reform. Their conversation revealed big changes in the way we address, treat, and even talk about drug issues in the United States.
Here are three ways drug policy is evolving:
The “War on Drugs” is over: One of the biggest shifts in recent years involves the way we frame organized efforts to reduce drug abuse among Americans. “War on Drugs,” a part of the American vernacular since its declaration by President Nixon more than 40 years ago, is no longer an accurate representation.
“[‘War on Drugs’] wasn’t going to define the Obama administration’s approach to the drug problem,” said Kerlikowske. “I could never really remember any of my colleagues around the country ever talking about it as a war on drugs. When you think about the oath of office that we took, to protect people, and to work with them and make sure they felt they had a law enforcement agency that could be trusted…The war analogy is not a particularly good one to use.”
We need more than “simplistic bumper sticker approaches” to fight drug abuse, Kerlikowske added, explaining that the American public is ready for a more substantial dialogue on the problem. It’s a trend that’s gaining traction globally as well—the Organization of American States just released a report that encourages more comprehensive drug policies.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” said Kerlikowske. “We have to approach drug policy from a public health standpoint, not just the criminal justice standpoint.”
In this regard, one of the administration’s priorities is equal access to drug treatment. “The Affordable Care Act is one important tool in this area,” said Kerlikowske. “It is revolutionary for drug policy. For the first time, it makes drug treatment for substance abuse disorders a required health benefit.”
Equal access to treatment also applies those in prison. Research (including our own) has shown that those who treat their addictions while incarcerated are less likely to commit additional offenses upon their release.
Drug courts, which stress treatment over punishment, are another important—and research-supported— piece of the puzzle.
There’s a new focus on “decriminalization” (but not necessarily legalization): Though no one on the panel expressed favor for blanket legalization, decriminalization received enthusiastic support, especially from Manger, the Montgomery County police chief.
Manger described the challenges faced by school resource officers, who are “taking dope out of lockers every single day.” As Manger put it, "nothing good happens when the only option we have is to charge [these kids] criminally, and see what kind of sanctions we can get from the courts. That’s not the way to go. That’s where decriminalization comes in."
“So many of the cases that we deal with are strictly possession cases,” Manger continued. “They’re cases that involve very minor, if any, other criminal activity, and those are the ones where decriminalization makes sense. Let’s get them the treatment they need.”
As the discussion came to close, all the panelists agreed that the future of drug policy reform looks promising, though not without a few challenges.
“We’ve made great strides, particularly in the last decade, in our thinking about drug policy, criminal justice policy, the reforms that have been enacted. It’s very different than it was at the height of the wars on crime and drugs in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” said the Sentencing Project’s Mauer. “But I think we’re still at a point where changing politics, changing policy, changing culture is a very difficult thing to do, and we have a long way to go.”
Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life |Tags: decriminalization, drug policy, drugs, Kerlikowske, ONDCP, public health, Urban Institute, war on drugs Add a Comment »
| Posted: May 23rd, 2013
Today, I spoke at the Urban Institute to call for the expansion of criminal justice reforms aimed at addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior in light of new data confirming the nexus between drug use and crime. The 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II) shows that in five cities/counties, more than half of adult males arrested for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies tested positive for at least one illegal drug. According to ADAM II, positive test results among arrestees ranged from 62 percent in Atlanta to 86 percent in Chicago.
In 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 53 percent each of jail and state inmates and 46 percent of Federal inmates suffered from drug use abuse or dependence – and yet only 7 percent of jail inmates, 15 percent of state inmates, and 17 percent of Federal inmates received treatment.
These data show that reform is needed. A month ago, the Obama Administration released the 2013 National Drug Control Strategy (Strategy), the president’s plan for 21st century drug policy reform based on scientific research about the nature of addiction. This plan reflects our understanding of addiction as chronic brain disease—one that can be prevented, treated, and from which people can recover.
The Strategy also supports a “smart on crime” approach to drug enforcement, protecting communities from domestic and international drug-related crime while diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. As part of this approach, our plan highlights promising criminal justice reform, like drug courts and smart probation programs that reduce incarceration rates, along with community-based policing programs that break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while focusing limited enforcement resources on more serious offenses.
Far too often, addiction is at the root of what drives crime in our communities. To stop the revolving door of the criminal justice system in America, we must address not only serious criminal activities, but equally important, underlying substance use disorders. The ADAM II report confirms an urgent need to support policy reform outlined in the Obama Administration’s new drug policy strategy, which emphasizes prevention, treatment, and “smart on crime” policies that break the vicious cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration in America.
To read the full 2012 Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Annual Report (ADAM II) report, click here.
Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life |Tags: crime, drug, drug policy, Kerlikowske, MetroTrends, ONDCP, Urban Institute Add a Comment »
Jennifer Stoff John Roman
| Posted: March 29th, 2013
New York City Police Officer, Photo by Flickr user David Hilowitz, used under a creative commons license. (CC by 2.0)
It’s midnight. A cop stands on a street corner giving ad hoc counseling to a man in crisis. The crisis may have been brought on by drug or alcohol abuse or a mental health issue, or he may simply be despondent over his station in life.
In a scene repeated every night in cities across America, cops are providing the counseling because our social welfare infrastructure in our cities cannot handle the demand for their services. What is needed is an infusion of capital to revive our overburdened social service infrastructure.
The catch? These problems are politically intractable. Cash-strapped governments often can’t take on big, risky, expensive problems that cut across political boundaries and ideologies. Thankfully, many private citizens are eager to do so.
Social innovations that partner government, philanthropy, and the private and nonprofit sectors are proliferating across the country. Entrepreneurial philanthropists are engaged in cutting-edge thinking, leveraging their giving to solve difficult problems in sustainable ways, and sometimes even return a dividend that can become another gift. Solutions include everything from microlending to impact investing to benefit corporations to the human capital performance bonds signed into law in Minnesota.
But the star of the social innovation show, and the tool for cities to fix their human capital, digital, and social service infrastructure, is a financial instrument you’ve probably never heard of—the social impact bond. Social impact bonds infuse private capital into traditionally public-sector activities, helping build a better safety net while reducing the state’s burden to care for vulnerable citizens.
Launched last year by New York City and funded by the Bloomberg Foundation and Goldman Sachs, the first social impact bond invested almost $10 million in a program for young men being held at Rikers Island. The program helps prepare inmates with the skills they need to return to the community, succeed, and stay out of jail. MDRC, an independent research firm will manage the intervention and the Vera Institute will rigorously evaluate the program. If it works, only then will New York City have to repay the bond.
That idea—that investors, not the government—bear the risk for big, expensive, risky endeavors, is central to the success of social impact bonds. Investors are rewarded if performance targets are met; if not, the government does not have to pay for services delivered.
President Obama included $100 million in the 2012 budget for federal partnerships with states and local governments to launch social impact bonds. The Department of Justice has funded some initiatives, including a project at the Urban Institute to study the mechanics of bringing social impact bonds to cities across the country, and the Department of Labor will soon announce up to $20 million in awards for social impact bonds.
The federal government is pushing this initiative hard, not only because of its potential to infuse capital into cash-starved cities, but also because the model requires that funded programs are based on strong evidence. After decades of the federal government funding well-intentioned but often unsuccessful programs, this administration has fully committed to evidence-based governance.
And cities are hungry to implement the model. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeffrey Liebman, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government has established the Social Impact Bond Lab to help cities implement SIBs. More than two dozen applied and many others are investigating the concept.
Putting Cities’ Social Innovations Under One Umbrella
What’s perhaps most exciting about this moment is that cities across the country are already exploring the social innovation concept—though without a unified strategy. Take the District of Columbia, for example. Just a few months ago, DC Mayor Vincent Gray awarded more than $4 million in grants to city agencies that were judged to have the most innovative plans for making the District more environmentally sustainable, but the city departments behind each initiative may not be aware of each other’s efforts. The District would benefit immensely from a strategy that contains such initiatives under a single social innovation umbrella, rather than uncoordinated, one-off attempts to infuse “innovation” into everyday work.
Call it the “Office of Urban Innovation.” The Office of Urban Innovation can solve problems that have stifled city innovation for years:
- promoting innovations that have positive citywide benefits but are more costly than a single agency can bear
- creating teams that span agencies—or even political boundaries—to transfer knowledge critical to program success
- creating new partnerships with philanthropies, venture capitalists, private companies, and other governments
Think it can’t work? The United Kingdom has an Office for Civil Society that does all of those things.
Social innovation may prove to be the mechanism that moves American city governments into the future. And cops can go back on the beat knowing trained counselors are there for the man in crisis.
Jennifer Stoff works in social policy and civil rights at the local level in the District of Columbia.
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life |Tags: benefit corporations, Bloomberg Foundation, District of Columbia, Goldman Sachs, human capital performance bonds, impact investing, Jeffrey Liebman, Mayor Vincent Gray, microlending, police, social impact bonds, social innovation, social welfare Add a Comment »
| Posted: July 30th, 2012
About 10 years ago, I was part of a scientific team that reviewed the literature on the effectiveness of firearms legislation for reducing violence. Our team, a non-federal task force convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published findings in 2003 and 2005. We concluded—as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently mentioned—that there was no way to know whether any of those laws are effective. A panel convened by the National Research Council reached the same conclusion.
Our team examined seven types of gun laws, from bans on particular kinds of weapons to those that mandate easy access to concealed-weapons permits, sometimes called “right-to-carry” laws. Firearms restrictions are advocated to reduce the lethality of violence; right-to-carry laws are advocated as a means to deter criminals. But such laws do several things simultaneously. While intended to deter would-be offenders, right-to-carry may also spark an arms race that leads criminals to carry ever more dangerous firearms. And they also make it easier for conflicts to quickly escalate in lethality. Put such different effects together and it is hard to confidently predict the net benefit or harm.
Why can’t we tell if these laws increase or reduce violence?
There are two main reasons. First, we don’t do controlled experiments and randomly assign some people to be subject to gun laws. Instead, laws are passed in particular places at particular times. But the jurisdictions that pass such laws are different from those that don’t, so simple cross-sectional comparisons—which are very tempting—are not informative about the effects of those laws. Such laws aren’t passed at random times, either, so that simple before-and-after comparisons aren’t much better. Instead, convincing studies of the effects of such policies require hard thinking, good data, sophisticated analyses, and lots of peer review and replication. Even then, the results often prove inconclusive.
Second, U.S. crime data are terrible. Homicide data from public health systems are good, because almost all deaths in the U.S. are recorded. A few studies capitalized on them; results were mixed.
To look at violence generally, researchers rely on crime data. Our main source is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), based on aggregate reports to the FBI from the more than 18,000 police departments in the country. Across jurisdictions, the variability in what is reported renders comparisons almost meaningless, especially at the county level. Criminologists—who agree on little else—have deemed using the UCR data to rank cities as “invalid, damaging, and irresponsible.” Reporting is also remarkably incomplete, not to mention the all-too-common claims of jurisdictions underreporting crime. (Our other primary other data source, the National Crime Victimization Survey, is nationally representative but too small to disaggregate to jurisdictions.)
Some statistically sophisticated studies have tried to estimate the effects of gun laws on violence, using UCR data. But in the end, you cannot build strong conclusions on unreliable data. The nascent National Incident-Based Report System would be much more reliable but is more expensive. The mission of the Bureau of Justice Statistics is to produce reliable criminal justice statistics, but it is underfunded. Over the past decade, the National Institute of Justice has tried to improve the UCR data, but these are baby steps. It is long past due for the United States to set up more valid and reliable crime reporting systems.
Meanwhile, in the absence of definitive evidence, what should we conclude about gun laws? Personally, I don’t see any reason not to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. Isn’t their only purpose to kill many people quickly? For most other weapons restrictions, the genie may be out of the bottle. So many guns are already in circulation that bans now have little chance of appreciably affecting criminal violence. Surprisingly, perhaps, the number of households with firearms may be declining.
What about right-to-carry laws and other attempts to allow more citizens to arm themselves for defensive purposes? As explained above, I don’t know whether such laws deter more everyday violence than they facilitate. I am confident that they would not deter mass shootings by assailants who expect to be caught and/or killed. Whether many armed civilian moviegoers would have been able to stop the latest shooter without harming many others in the crossfire is a more difficult question. I remain skeptical.
Filed under: Crime, Quality of Life 3 Comments »