The Mystery Of American Violence
    By Enrico Uva | March 27th 2012 06:11 PM | 24 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

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    Although the murder rate nationwide has decreased by over 50% between 1991 and 2010, about a year ago, New Orleans, St.Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and Newark had homicide rates that ranged from 49 to 32 per 100 000 of population. The most murderous places on Earth, South Africa, Central and South America have average rates that range from 21 to 32. To be fair, if we compare cities with cities, then they are on a par with the violent city of Johannesburg.

    Interestingly the latter has also experienced a similar decline in violence in almost the same time span, and it currently has a homicide rate of 37 per 100 000. Overall, the United States with an overall rate of 4.8 is far safer than its most violent cities and less volatile than most countries in the Americas. But with half of Russia's murder rate, it still leads most of Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and China.from United Nations

    Since I live in Canada, which is so similar to the United States, I often wonder why, north of the border, we are only one third as likely to be homicide victims. For those who entertain the silly notion that American violence spawns from its blood-filled movies and television, we basically watch the same stuff, and our National Hockey League, despite moments of athletic brilliance, can get as barbaric as the National Football League. Most of our currency also has small traces of cocaine on it, and our organized crime leaders have intimate links with those in America.

    If you examine homicide rates in American cities with populations above 250 000, you will notice that although they comprise only 18% of the nation's population, they account for 38% of its murders. But in Canada, the average murder rate in urban centers(1.49 per 100 000) is actually lower than it is for smaller municipalities(1.80)!

    Is our lower rate linked to tougher gun laws? Unlikely. As pointed out by a non-National Rifle Association-sponsored Review of International Evidence, many Western European countries have high rates of gun ownership yet low murder rates. In Canada, there is a black market for all sorts of assault rifles, so the deranged can still get their hands on them, and we have had cases of infanticide where gunless murderers pushed vehicles and their victims into bodies of water.

    And why has the homicide declined so dramatically in recent decades in the United States and Canada? There are genetic roots to aggression in our species, but the gene pool hasn't changed much in this short period. The city of New York attributes the decline to increased police presence, but similar drops were experienced by cities that did not significantly step up efforts to fight crime.

    This is speculation on my part, but here is how I account for the decline in violence:

    1.    The surge in personal computer use has:

    (a) kept much of our youth off the streets by giving them ways to interact online and by providing an outlet for aggression through video games.

    (b) given criminals a chance to switch from blue to white collar crime:  identity theft and online gambling, to name a few.

    2.    When violence was peaking in the 1960's and 1970's there had been dramatic increase in urbanization, a surge in broken families and more unsupervised free time on the part of children. In later decades, divorce rates not only stabilized, but a larger percentage of youth had attended day cares and day camps, which strongly discourage aggression.

    In Steven Pinker's book, The Blank Slate, he attributes the decline in violence to demographics. He claims that the boomers were mostly in their youth when the homicide rate peaked.


    FBI Crime Statistics

    Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? Review of International Evidence

    United Nations Global Study On Homicide


    Nice there seems to be some decline, but still more salient to ask why it is so high. I think one must take culture, health care system/ drug laws, racism and so on into account. E.g., you mention gun ownership in parts of west Europe. The culture is different. Certainly in Germany, having a gun is seen as a burden to do first of all with duties and responsibility. It certainly is not first of all about the right to have one (let alone about caressing it and standing my ground with it against teens with hooded sweaters). Mental healthcare in Canada is not equally about kicking sufferers out on the street in order for them to turn up in all kinds of crime statistics. Drug laws are enforced more leniently. Racism is less extreme. These differences make the US situation a very tense, stressful, fearful one in which people much faster lose it around the guns that are omnipresent. I would thus look for changes in these areas (a black president perhaps, increasing tolerance for drug legalization calls, ... there are some positive signs at times even in the US).
    Thor Russell
    I can't agree with the view on guns coming from New Zealand. We just had someone go crazy with a knife in my home city, he kidnapped and stabbed a lady after taking forcing her to drive, then got out and stabbed the first person he saw. A member of the public held him off with a crowbar until the cops arrived. They pepper sprayed him, and tasered him twice with no effect until they eventually shot him. However death toll : 0!
    There is no way that would be the case in a society with easy access to guns and a strong gun culture. He could also have got hold of a gun in NZ if he wanted to, but his was not the planned craziness. He took the first thing that was there, and that wasn't enough to commit mass murder with.
    If he had a gun in his house he would have used it with totally different results.
    Thor Russell
    The flaw in any study comparing deaths is that they are an artificial metric unless fewer people are actually dying - and they are not, they are just dying in other ways.  In America, cultural opponents of guns are consistently caught fudging numbers (a criminal shot by the police is counted as a gun attacker and a gun victim) without addressing the core issue; do guns reduce overall crime?

    The western countries with the highest assault rates are England, Scotland and Wales - they hold the top 3 spot - yet they ban guns.  In England, criminal break-ins that occur while the person is home are common, and the homeowners get assaulted, which is better than getting shot, I guess, but you can be sure criminals put a pin in a map where they know there are a lot of gun owners and avoid them.

    Now, there can be another extreme; Somalia has about 100% gun ownership and both crimes and murders are high. It could be that guns are not the problem at all, maybe gun murders go down the more people are reliant on government.  If we want to match two curves, almost anything is possible.

    The "Freakonomics" guys were able to show that the runaway crime rate of the 1970s by the '90s dropped not because of adding more cops or sillier laws, but because of abortion becoming common in the 70s - so maybe abortion advocates did far more to reduce violence than conservatives could ever have dreamed of doing.  It all depends on if you agree with their methodology.
    sure criminals put a pin in a map where they know there are a lot of gun owners
    NRA just so stories. Interesting how fluently right wing people alternate between criminals as genetically predisposed and since failing school for ever lost cases on who all rehabilitation efforts are a complete waste and criminals as those rational agents that go map out cost-benefit analyses, calculating how much risk three strikes and the death penalty add to see whether certain zip codes have a positive expected return.
    Sadly, it is the former rather than the latter with people who do home invasions. China kills them and forbids guns, so it is very safe indeed here in comparison - my wife can walk outside any time of night - I could not do that in LA. A rational society has to draw the line somewhere about what should be rehabilitated given the resources available and e.g. needs of the poor. Of course, a religious society where law is instead about revenge and imagined deterrence, why not have guns all over, prisons everywhere full to the brim, ... after all, one can always save money on infrastructure, education, health ... ;-)
    In addition, there have been several studies linking reduced environmental lead levels to reduced violence.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think people are conflating several different issues here to bolster their respective opinions.  Some separation of what constitutes "criminals" is perhaps in order.

    I'm sure we can all agree that there are some people that are simply "crazy" [non-technical term] in which case, they will attempt to kill people with whatever happens to be handy.  If they had access to nuclear weapons they would undoubtedly blow up cities, but I don't think it serves any useful purpose to describe them as a nuclear threat. 

    However, what is relevant in the U.S., is the almost rabid defense of the 2nd amendment by people that are way too paranoid for my tastes.  In those cases, they are often responsible for getting guns into the hands of felons and others because they think their "right" supercedes any responsibility for ensuring the people they provide them to are stable.  This is also a form of craziness.

    I have no problem with a "right to bear arms", but I have a tremendous problem in the lack of responsible behaviors that often occurs with such a right.  One does have to question the motivation of gun rights advocates when they want to deny or ignore waiting periods, or background checks.  Most of those same people were willing to accept that President Obama is a radical Muslim because they felt that his bid for the presidency failed to provide an adequate background check [i.e. birth certificate] and yet they would willingly sell automatic weapons to a guy they met two minutes earlier and then complain about a background check for him.

    More importantly, let's also remember that the right to protect oneself doesn't extend to the right to wage war against those you are intimidated by or fearful of.  Too many people have access to guns without a sense of the responsibility that should accompany such a right. 

    One does have to wonder at the fascination that so many Americans have with privately owning assault weapons.
    Mundus vult decipi
    More importantly, let's also remember that the right to protect oneself 
    There is no right to protect oneself, owning a gun is part of the Bill of Rights just like freedom of speech, press and religion and therefore can have reasonable interpretations as to how far that extends.

    Some people will do bad things with their rights but we don't penalize everyone for that. A waiting period for the Bill of Rights has never been allowed so clearly people should just ban guns and change the Constitution, or stop trying to legislate around the Constitution.

    That said, I see no reason why states can't limit guns, abortion or anything else - it's only federal encroachment that makes me balk, since California should not tell Montana how to live.
    Gerhard Adam
    There is no right to protect oneself...
    I suppose if you want to interpret that as a legislative process.  Such a right is so fundamental as to be beyond laws, so I guess I would agree there.
    A waiting period for the Bill of Rights has never been allowed so clearly people should just ban guns and change the Constitution...
    Are you arguing that felons also have those same constitutional protections?  I don't think that we need to interpret the Bill of Rights along the narrowest lines.  I also don't think the Bill of Rights should be interpreted as a "how to" manual, when something doesn't actually interfere with that right.  We may the "freedom of speech", but we don't have the right to claim that we should all have access to television broadcast media. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure, that is what I meant by reasonable limitations - we don't allow someone to arbitrarily kill someone else just because gun ownership, and therefore usage, is legal. The case in Florida is being interpreted as a gun issue but it is instead a legislative micromanagement issue.
    Quentin Rowe
    I agree in part. Here in NZ it is being mostly portrayed as a race issue. While I agree racial stereotyping is definitely playing a role in this case, it strikes me that the 'gun' is the one being protected here at the expense of a human life.

    That someone can provoke a confrontation while carrying a lethal weapon, brandish it, kill a young man with it, and NOT be arrested is astounding to me. I've heard the audio's of this case, and I don't understand why the more obvious view of a victim defending himself from a gun wielding aggressor, and pleading for help from the public, is not being taken by local police.

    If there was no gun involved, say Zimmerman had a knife when he murdered
    Trayvon, I'm convinced he would have been arrested. When it's a gun, it's like "oh it's a gun, don't argue with the gun... respect my authority'!

    I'm actually going to agree with the NRA... guns don't kill people, people do! It's just that, like a class A narcotic, guns have the ability to turn their users in to momentary psychopaths. That's why such narcotics are considered dangerous. And if a gun 'end user' (as in delivers a bullet) knows he can plead paranoia as a defense and get away with it, then USA society is in big trouble in my opinion.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm actually going to agree with the NRA... guns don't kill people, people do!
    Well, then we can stop all the sabre-rattling regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation.  After all, if the weapon isn't the problem, then why ban them or fight to limit them?

    ... and no, it's not different.  This is precisely where such reasoning leads.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Quentin Rowe
    Hey, I did point out that guns change people in the head, like drugs, which really means:

    I don't agree with the NRA...     ;-)
    Quentin Rowe
    Leaving the house checklist...
    Wallet: Check
    Keys: Check
    Mobile phone: Check
    Sun glasses: Check
    Socks matching: Check
    Concealed lethal weapon in case I need to kill someone: WTF?

    That's what I don't get about the USA view on guns. It's a constant&maintained paranoia that someone is out to kill you. And we all know how contagious paranoia is. And when you're paranoid, a gun seem like it might be a good idea.

    One does have to wonder at the fascination that so many Americans have with privately owning assault weapons. (Gerhard)
    I wonder too, as these weapons are specifically designed to rapidly kill multiple humans. Although I've no desire to do so myself, they must be a blast to fire for fun&sport. I think it would be great if they no longer existed, all the same.
    We just had someone go crazy with a knife in my home city... (Thor)
    Thor, what a pleasant surprise to find we share the same crazy city! You write great and thoughtful blogs too. Hope you've gotten thru the quakes fine...
    Thor Russell
    Hi Quentin,I see that we do share the same city! Glad you like my blogs.
    I have been reasonably lucky with the quakes and just had to shift office (twice now) which isn't too bad when you are working in software. Yes I really think from NZ we just can't comprehend the gun culture in the US. I feel that their constitution is a  straight jacket, not a document to protect society.

    Thor Russell
    I feel that their constitution is a  straight jacket, not a document to protect society.

    Most of the constitution is not a straight jacket. Directly or not, it served as an inspiration to the subsequent democracies in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
    Thor Russell
    How did it serve as an inspiration to NZ? we are still not even a republic and influenced a lot by the UK. The USA inspires us to avoid many of their perceived mistakes as much as copy them where I live. If you recognize that some of the constitution causes more harm than good, then what do you do? 
    Thor Russell
    Quentin Rowe
    I feel that their constitution is a  straight jacket, not a document to protect society.
    Yep, I second that... , well parts of it. Constitutions are powerful documents when it comes to stable government.

    ...and just had to shift office (twice now) which isn't too bad when you are working in software.
    Yes, I remember pictures of office workers emerging from the dust&rubble with their work PC's under their arms. This was a wise decision, as later, others were unable to gain access to buildings and essential files & info. Of course, we all regularly back up...  ;-)

    In Steven Pinker's book, The Blank Slate, he attributes the decline in violence to demographics. He claims that the boomers were mostly in their youth when the homicide rate peaked.
    So hippies were more violent than generations before or since?  I am buying the Freakonomics abortion link before I am buying into violent hippies.
    Quentin Rowe
    Hank, from a cultural perspective, maybe the hippie's did get more violent?

    I've noticed the trends when watching movies from 60's 70's 80's etc. I see a trend developing as you get into the early 70's of macho expression, guns, violence, ridiculous muscle cars, and generally treating woman badly. This was around in earlier movies, but seemed to really accelerate at this time. I've asked myself, how did the hippie vision degenerate into such a casual violent culture?

    Maybe it's just the hippie generation, rather than hippies themselves. Hippies were a minority during the sixties, but their influence belies this. The 70's culture maybe a result of the blending of the two extremes. Not sure really - wondering out loud. Nevertheless, I did notice an increase in violence portrayed in movies.
    Not sure what age you are but, to me, those movies were reflecting resentment of progressive culture, not acts by the culture itself. "Death Wish" and the 'Dirty Harry' movies were a cultural backlash against moral equivalence for criminals.

    Good point about the generation rather than actual hippies.  That age had 5 riots in a year and trashing the Democratic convention, obviously lots of assassinations, but it wasn't hippies doing it.
    The problem with most US "cities" is that they're not really cities, but typically small parts of a larger conurbation that, in many other countries, most or all of which would be considered the "city". Not only do US cities take in only a small part of what ought to be considered the "city", but they also contain a disproportionate number of poor, low income areas.

    This is the way US cities develop, the center becomes ghettoized while more desirable suburbs continually mushroom around it. Cities in other countries develop differently and even in the opposite direction so it's better to use full metropolitan areas (amongst other reasons).

    According to the FBI, the murder rate for New Orleans in 2010 was (once again) a relatively modest 21 per 100,000. It's amazing how often the FBI statistics are ignored by the media and, consequently, not picked up by the general public.


    Interesting link from Sascha in which the author argues that rape and assault have shifted to prisons--not so fair for those who were not incarcerated for violent crimes.

    Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
    John Hasenkam
    I'm actually going to agree with the NRA... guns don't kill people, people do 

    When I was growing up many had weapons, there were very few restrictions in Australia, even as teenagers we had rifles. There was very little gun related violence. Guns have been heavily regulated since 1996/7, we now have a rising gun violence problem. The origins of weapons violence are not found in weapons, the gun violence of the USA appears to be very much a US phenomenon. Following the advice of PJ O'Rourke, I won't even attempt to understand the USA's fascination with all things military. However, I can never conceive of that fascination as a good thing. 

    I don't like weapons prohibition but I don't like stupid malicious people either. Unfortunately because there is no DSM criteria to identify stupid malicious people, and because the aforesaid often end up with guns, promoting weapons ownership as a good thing for one and all is dangerous. 

    A recent study claimed ...