David M. Kennedy, Director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has a fascinating op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that forsakes gun control garment-rending for data. The results are eye-opening:
The fact is that most of the recent debate entirely missed the point about the nature of most gun violence in America. The largest share — up to three-quarters of all homicides in many cities — is driven by gangs and drug crews. Most of the remainder is also concentrated among active criminals; ordinary citizens who own guns do not commit street robberies or shoot their neighbors and wives ...
... Gun violence turns out to be driven by a fantastically small number of people: about 5% of the young men in the most dangerous neighborhoods. It is possible to identify them, put together a partnership of law enforcement, community figures and social service providers, and have a face-to-face engagement in which the authorities say, "We know who you are, we know what you're doing, we'd like to help you, but your violence has to stop, and there will be serious legal consequences if it doesn't."
... Even in high-crime communities, gun violence is concentrated geographically. It is particular blocks and corners, not whole neighborhoods, that are at highest risk. Rutgers University criminologist Anthony Braga has found that such places often stay hot for decades. Focused police attention on those places pays demonstrable dividends. Mere presence works; more sophisticated problem-solving efforts work better.
These approaches can work quickly, and they sidestep the culture war on guns because they require no legislative action. Most important, they bring relief to the beleaguered communities that need it the most.
While Kennedy acknowledges the need for more aggressive policing, some of his proposed remedies are a bit watered-down for my taste (the people who think "community outreach" is a solution to violent crime are the same people who really bought into the pep rallies in high school).
Still, I think he identifies two of the perverse incentives at work for politicians in the gun control debate:
1) The grisly spectacle of shootings like the one that occurred in Newtown blind us to where most gun violence occurs. It thus becomes very easy for politicians to conflate the most visible violence with the most common, even though there's no real overlap.
2) The efforts that would have the most effect -- namely, a more forceful police presence in America's most dangerous neighborhoods -- offer none of the political benefits that flow from standing before a bank of microphones on Capitol Hill. It's easy to pass legislation. It's much harder (and less visible) to marshal existing resources more effectively. It also happens to be what government's there for, however.
This is just one more reason I'd like to see Republicans make a more aggressive run at winning seats in major urban centers. Standing athwart new gun control laws is one thing. As noble as most of those efforts are, they won't do anything to assuage the concerns of voters who don't come to this issue with strong ideological priors. Simultaneously pushing for law enforcement efforts to curb violence where it actually happens, however, would allow us to wed a principled defense of the Second Amendment with practical efforts to actually make our streets safer. And it would lend a lot more credibility to the notion that we're the adults in this debate.