Rising murder rates and the distribution of violent crime

After several decades of decline in our homicide rate nationwide, large cities in the United States are seeing increases in the number of murders, as reported in The New York Times last August.  It’s unclear whether this is merely a statistical fluctuation or a change in the trend, but New York City, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, and the nation’s capital have all experienced increases in killings over last year.

Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s police superintendent, predictably attributes this to the presence of guns, while others speculate about a Ferguson effect, a possible reluctance on the part of police to pursue criminals aggressively in the wake of protests over incidents of white officers shooting black men, though it’s too early to tell if this latter explanation is supported by the data.

There is one possibility that is suggestive, however.  Take Milwaukee, which occupies much of the aforementioned Times article.  The city’s chief of police, Edward A. Flynn, is quoted as saying about young men in poor communities that, “maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death.”

Why is this?  Look at the performance of the city’s high school students.  Consistently in this decade, the four-year graduation rate has hovered around sixty percent.  That rises to around seventy-two percent after six years.  Similar dismal numbers can be found in New York City.

The relationship between high school graduation rates and rates of violent crime can be illustrated nationwide in two charts, one from the U.S. Census Bureau, the other from the FBI.  The correlation isn’t perfect, but the two maps show a linkage.

And this is not merely demonstrated geographically.  Graduation rates by race also bear out what I’m saying here.  Blacks make up 12.3% of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census, while whites represent three quarters.  The percentages of total arrests for each group are 28.3% and 68.9% respectively, with 52.2% of arrests for murder or non-negligent manslaughter being of African Americans.  Eighty-five percent of white high school students graduate, while sixty-eight percent of blacks students earn a diploma.

Given the data, I have to say to Chicago’s McCarthy and others who agree with him that no, it’s not the number of guns on the street that is driving the homicide rate.  Violence has many causes, but the presence of weapons in a community is at most a symptom.  As those of us who collect guns either out of interest or to use for specific purposes—hunting rifles designed with particular game in mind, for example—know, it’s not the gun by itself that is the problem.

And again, the data support the conclusion I’m offering here.  As Lance Lochner of the University of Western Ontario and Enrico Moretti of UCLA found in 2003, completion of high school makes a person less likely to commit crimes.  They concluded that even a one percent improvement in completion rates among men ages twenty to sixty would result in a savings of $1.4 billion annually in costs associated with violent crime.

It’s easy to wish for a magic bullet, and we should always be suspicious of answers that sound simple, but when the solution is based on multiple lines of evidence and would have many beneficial effects in addition to ameliorating the problem we’re focused on, we ought to do the hard work of making the attempt.  Gun control is opposed by many Americans, and the specific plans offered often target only people who were following the law anyway.  But who among us can seriously be against education?

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.