Monday, May 13, 2013

Violent Crime In the US

Photo by Chang Liu
Pardon today's divergence; I'm still in shock. Today I started with the news and saw that 19 people were injured in a Mother's Day parade shooting in the US. Described by the FBI as "strictly an act of street violence", as if somehow that is more reassuring than terrorism. You have to wonder just how bad things have to get in the US before someone does anything. Sadly, due to overwhelming evidence that gun crime in the US has plummeted sharply in the past two decades, many in the US are using this as an excuse for inaction.

What they're ignoring is that gun murders in the US are far higher than the rest of the industrialized world. Just because we've improved this statistic doesn't mean that it's suddenly "acceptable." There's also another little statistic that many would rather you didn't know.

When the media is talking about how US gun crime has dropped sharply since 1993, you might ask the question "why did they pick 1993 as the year to measure from?" On one hand, this makes arbitrary sense as we can say "we looked at gun crime in the past 20 years". On the other hand, it turns out that this is a convenient year for those who would rather see nothing change: 1993 is the year that gun crime peaked in the US. Yes, you can say that "gun murders have dropped sharply in the past two decades", but you can also say "gun murders have dropped from their peak and have now returned to the levels see in the early 1960s." Let's go back a little bit further and look at another graph:
Source: US Department of Justice Statistics
Well, that changes the picture quite a bit, doesn't it? However, even that graph is misleading because it uses absolute rather than relative numbers, indicating that maybe the gun homicide rate is dropping a bit.  So let's look at the Pew Research Report that everyone is talking about but not linking to (emphasis mine):
Looking back 50 years, the U.S. gun homicide rate began rising in the 1960s, surged in the 1970s, and hit peaks in 1980 and the early 1990s. (The number of homicides peaked in the early 1990s.) The plunge in homicides after that meant that firearm homicide rates in the late 2000s were equal to those not seen since the early 1960s.
Even the most casual student of history can guess what major change was happening in the US starting in the 1960s.

The Pew report mentions that 1993 was a peak, but every single graph used throughout the entire report shows numbers dropping from a peak, so if you don't read the information carefully, you can easily be mislead. As for their "looking back 50 years", they found that information at this US Department of Justice report (pdf) which states:
In the last decade (since 2000) the homicide rate declined to levels last seen in the mid-1960s [and] the homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, increasing from 4.6 per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1962 to 9.7 per 100,000 by 1979.
And guess what? They have graphs, too.

Source: FBI Uniform Crime reports, 1950-2010
Graph reproduced from US Department of Justice report

Note that these numbers are relative and clearly show that there was a peak, but this does not include guns. However, it does tend to show the ridiculously high homicide levels in the US and I've already pointed out that the US has a much higher murder rate than most of the industrialized world, and this interactive world gun homicide map will merely drive the point home.

Why does the US accept this? We know that simply throwing people in prison doesn't make crime go away. If it did, we'd have a paradise:

There's so much more which can be said about the sad state of affairs in the US. We can easily look at US history or at other nations to see multiple approaches to the problems we face, but instead the US turns to bellicose rhetoric and finger pointing, politicians jockeying for position and the American people being overlooked in the scuffle. No one seems particularly interested in information any more.

So what's going to happen after this latest shooting?

Nothing. There will be talk. There will be wailing. There might even be a cosmetic change or two, but there will be no attempt to address the underlying causes of crime in the US. There will be no serious attempt to ensure that only responsible adults have guns. There will be no national introspection regarding what is going wrong in the US.

Forget about taking away people's guns. Not only is that simply not going to happen and it won't solve the underlying problems. The US needs to wake up and start behaving like adults willing to learn and to face hard choices. Of all the strengths of the US, learning and facing hard choices aren't amongst them.

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