Monday, December 31, 2012

What we think we know about violence in America

While the horror of  the elementary school shooting in Newtown Connecticut should not be minimized, we should nevertheless, not let it lead us to believing untrue things.     

We, nor our children, are at a great risk of being killed in a mass shooting. The chances of being killed in a mass shooting are about what they are for being struck by lightning. You have a much greater risk of being killed in an auto accident or being killed playing football or bicycling or dying from any number of illnesses than you do of being killed in a mass shooting. 

The number of people killed in mass shooting is not increasing. The chart to the right reflects the research of criminologist Alan Fox showing the number of victims, offenders and deaths from mass shooting from 1980- 1910. It shows no trend upward.
This year has been a terrible year for such mass shootings, with the shooting at a movie theater in Auroa Colorado in July, the Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August, a shooting in  Minneapolis in September and then the Connecticut elementary school on December 14. However, one year does not make a trend. 

While criminologist Alan Fox looked at all mass killing including those involving robbery, Mother Jones took another approach and looked only at killing sprees with no rational motive and found an increase in 2012, reflected in the chart to the right.

One could look at this chart and just as validly and observe a 90% drop in mass killings from 1999 to 2000 and no mass killings at all in 2002. Does that really tell us anything of significance? All we know is that we had an unusually high number of mass killings in 2012.

Another thing that this horrific killing in Connecticut has led many to believe is that crime is increasing.  Crime is actually on the decline and has been since about 1980 and has been dropping rapidly since about 1994. This data is available for anyone who wants to know it.

But the rate of firearm homicides is up, is it not?  No, it is not. Firearm homicide is at its lowest point since at least 1981: 3.6 per 100,000 people in 2010. The high point was 7 in 1993.

There are other things people think they know and those things are true. The United States has a higher rate of violence than other modern industrialized countries.  We do not have the highest rate in the world however. Much of the less developed world has a much, much higher crime rate but that is no consolation. We do not want to be compared to South Africa or Columbia but to Europe or Canada and comparing the United States with similar nations finds that U.S. homicide rate almost seven times higher than rates in the other high-income countries.

This, however, needs to be put in some context. We are a very large and diverse country and comparing the US to a homogeneous nation like most of the industrialized nations of Europe is not an equal comparison. Much of our higher crime rate can be attributed to Black-on-Black crime and is really a problem of the Black underclass. If one were to exclude Baltimore, Detroit, Washington D.C and New Orleans from the equation, America would not be that much more violent than the UK. That of course does not explain all of it by any means but is a factor.

I do accept that the ready availability of guns in America and our history and gun culture contributes to a higher violent crime rate and may contribute to the incidents of mass killings. There are other factors which may contribute also such as the state of mental health services, a culture that glorifies violence in movies and video games, a declining religiosity and sense of community, a weakened family structure, and "taking God out of the class room." All of these factors should be examined, but they need to be examined calmly and we should not "do something" just for the sake of doing something. We should not jump to conclusions and make decisions based on emotions and things we think we know, that are not true.

For sources and more discussion see here, here, here, and here.

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