Cities and their murders

According to FBI Director James Comey, the homicide rates of several of America’s largest cities has risen this year.  In his words, “I don’t know what the answer is, but holy cow, do we have a problem.”

This makes for good headlines, but the reality is neither so simple nor so dire.  While some cities have seen a rise in murders over 2015 at this point in the year, others have seen a decline.  This year follows the previous in which three cities—Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington—represented more than half the increase in homicides.

The shifting in rates in our thirty largest cities shows no obvious pattern with regard to region or laws.  Oklahoma City saw the second largest percentage increase, while Baltimore came in third.  San Francisco’s rise was almost fourteen percent, and San Antonio enjoyed a decline of more than ten percent.  Denver had the worst increase of seventy percent; Austin’s decrease was the best at thirty-three percent.

Why these moves up or down have happened is unclear.  The usual answers—poverty and unemployment—are suggestive, but not conclusive.  There is a connection between poverty and violent crime, but poverty in this nation remains a persistent problem, while rates of violent crime of all types, including homicide, are at lows not seen for decades.

One cause we can address easily here is that gun laws have anything to do with changes in homicide rates.  Rates have risen or fallen without regard to the strictness of gun control.  Increases in the rates in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. come at the same time as some cities in Texas, but rises in New York City and Los Angeles were much lower than ones in Houston and Charlotte.

In response to these facts, advocates of gun control claim that we need national gun laws as bureaucratic and onerous as those found in states like New Jersey or California.  But the lack of correlation between gun laws and homicide rates makes it difficult to accept that what it hasn’t shown are consistent reductions, even minor ones, in the number of people who are murdered where gun control is tight.  And given the unwillingness of most states to go along with the controls that a handful have accepted, it’s hard to imagine laws nationwide becoming what groups like the Brady Campaign or Moms Demand Action would like to see.

America’s homicide rate peaked over the last century in 1980 at 10.2 per hundred thousand.  It remained between eight and ten per hundred thousand until the mid 90s and has since dropped to less than half its maximum.  We’re currently at a rate that is close to what we experienced in the 1950s.  The rates over the twentieth century and first decades of the twenty-first are much lower than they were during the periods of colonization, revolution, and consolidation and civil war in the some three hundred years since the English began settling on this continent.  At the beginning, homicides numbered in the thirties per hundred thousand, declining steadily from that high to remain below ten almost always in the last hundred years.

This raises a question as to whether we’ve landed at a plateau of rates.  Will we stay somewhere around 4.5/100,000?  Here we have to speculate.  The trend worldwide is downward, and is the result of better education, better access to opportunity, and better protection of everyone’s rights.  As criminologists pointed out regarding the increase in homicides in some cities, the rise isn’t across whole cities, but is concentrated in specific parts.  If we give up on pockets of higher crime as insoluble, of course we won’t see improvements.  But until all Americans enjoy the benefits I named above, I’m not ready to give up.  And I certainly won’t be ready to accept answers that haven’t worked in the past on the promise that this time, just maybe, we’ll achieve a different result.

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