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Maintaining Progress on Violent Crime

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The downward trend in violent crime over the last quarter-century has been nothing short of remarkable. FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data showed that in 2015 the nation’s violent crime rate was less than half of what it was in 1991, which was a recorded high. Just as stark has been the decline in the murder rate, which in 2015 stood at half that of 1991. Polling conducted at the turn of the 21st century routinely found that the problem that most concerned Americans was crime. By 2008, Washington Post columnist George Will observed, “Today's near silence about crime probably is evidence of social improvement.”

Longtime gun rights supporters are likely aware of this welcome trend. After all, throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, gun control supporters sought to scapegoat law-abiding gun owners as responsible for the nation’s social ills. These anti-gun advocates demanded ever-further gun restrictions, which they sold as the public policy elixir that would alleviate the plague of violent crime.

Those seeking more gun control largely failed in their attempts to disarm Americans, and the drastic drop in violent crime coincided with an era of successful NRA efforts to protect and advance the exercise of the right to keep and bear arms. In 1986, a mere 10 states had Right-to-Carry laws, today there are 42. During that same time period, numerous states passed statutes to protect those who use deadly force in defense of themselves or others and, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court wiped out city ordinances that banned private handgun ownership. 

Of course, these coinciding trends did not occur in a vacuum. The 1980s and 90s witnessed bipartisan federal and state efforts to get a handle on America’s crime problem. Armed with the work of scholars such as Harvard University Professor James Q. Wilson, policymakers across the country worked to provide for the aggressive policing of their communities and an increase in the use stiff sentences to incarcerate criminal offenders.

It worked. In a 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times, titled, “Do the time, lower the crime,” Wilson looked back on these efforts, noting, “In the last 10 years, the effect of prison on crime rates has been studied by many scholars… [researchers] have shown that states that sent a higher fraction of convicts to prison had lower rates of crime, even after controlling for all of the other ways (poverty, urbanization and the proportion of young men in the population) that the states differed.”

Despite the success of this approach, in recent years there has been an increasingly concerted effort to curtail vigorous enforcement of the law, which, unfortunately, reached all the way to the Obama White House. Activists, some funded by anti-gun billionaire George Soros, seized upon a handful of regrettable police-citizen encounters to undermine the vital work of the law enforcement community at large. More broadly, there are those who advocate for the general reduction of prison time for criminals, criticizing what they term as America’s “mass incarceration” problem. The influence of this effort, unfortunately, has coincided with some discouraging data regarding violent crime.

According to FBI statistics, both the violent crime rate and the murder rate rose from 2014 to 2015, with the murder rate rising 10 percent. As of press time, the preliminary FBI data for 2016 has yet to be released. However, a projection from the New York University School of Law, which used data from the 30 largest cities, predicted violent crime in major cities to rise by 3.3 percent, and murder to rise 14 percent from 2015 to 2016. A survey from the Wall Street Journal found that “[16] of the 20 largest police departments reported a year-over-year rise in homicides as of mid-December.” 

Moreover, the “near silence” on crime has been broken. During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump made combatting crime a center-piece of his campaign, pointing to rising violence in cities like Chicago. A Gallup poll conducted in April 2016 found that Americans’ concern about crime and violence had reached its highest level since 2001.

FBI Director James Comey has suggested that the hyper-scrutiny of police-citizen encounters in recent years has decreased the ability or willingness of police to aggressively enforce the law. In an October 2015 speech to the University of Chicago Law School, Comey addressed this topic, stating, “I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”

A month later, Comey again addressed this issue, when he told reporters in Kansas City, Mo., that in talking to police around the country, “They say we are making arrests, we are responding to calls. But where we are stepping back a bit is we might have otherwise got out of our cars and talked to a group, we’re not doing that anymore because we don’t want to be that guy in the video.” Comey went on to add, “Hundreds of police officers and chiefs have told me privately they think that’s what’s going on.”

The experience of Chicago paints an even direr picture.

Following the intense backlash to an improper 2014 officer-involved shooting, Chicago police are in retreat, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel describing the posture of the Chicago police force as “fetal.” An investigation conducted by CBS’s 60 Minutes found, “In August of 2015, Chicago cops stopped and questioned 49,257 people. But, a year later, stops dropped 80 percent and arrests fell by a third.” As of December 26, 2016, the number of homicides in Chicago was up 57 percent over the previous year. The NYU report noted that for 2016, “Chicago is projected to account for 43.7 percent of the total increase in murders” in major cities. 

To understand the human cost of an approach that deemphasizes incarceration and aggressive policing, one need only look to the nation’s capital.

The Washington Post should be commended for their investigative reporting in a recent outstanding series of articles titled, “Second-Chance City,” that has brought much-needed attention to the tragic results of the D.C. criminal justice system’s listless efforts to protect the public from even the most violent offenders.

In their reporting, the Post pointed out two chief areas of concern. First, under D.C. law, adults under the age of 22 are eligible to be sentenced under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, which permits judges to sentence these offenders to terms less than what the statutory minimum would otherwise permit; even those convicted of violent felonies other than murder. Second, the agencies responsible for monitoring D.C.’s parolees, probationers, and those on pretrial release, have proven incapable of controlling the individuals that the courts have placed under their supervision.

The Post investigation found that there were “at least 121 defendants sentenced under the Youth Act who have gone on to be charged with murder in the District since 2010.” The paper went on to note that “Four of the slayings… occurred while the defendants could still have been incarcerated for previous crimes under mandatory minimum sentencing, and 30 of the killings took place while the while the suspects were on probation.”

The Post also pointed out that in 2015, the number of homicides in D.C. reached 162, a 54 percent increase over 2014. At the same time, “killings in 2015 charged to prior Youth Act recipients reached 22, double the previous year’s total.” In September, former-D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier described D.C.’s criminal justice system as “beyond broken.”

While the most recent data and anecdotal evidence are ominous, the U.S. is now in a position to reverse this unfortunate backslide, as President Trump will take a tough approach against violent crime. In addition to campaigning on reducing inner-city crime, on January 2, President-elect Trump took to twitter to register his disgust with Chicago’s inability to protect the public and suggest that federal help may be needed to get the situation under control. Moreover, Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as Attorney General shows that the new administration is prepared to reestablish federal support for law enforcement and criminal justice principles that have a proven track record of success.

In addition to ensuring that the law enforcement community once again has the full confidence and support of the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal government is now poised to step in to intensify the prosecution and punishment of violent offenders where local efforts have proven inadequate. This strategy was used in Richmond, Va. in the late 1990s under Project Exile, where federal prosecutors worked to remove criminals who misused firearms from the city by vigorously prosecuting them under existing federal gun laws, which subjected those convicted to stiff federal sentences. The success of the program garnered it bipartisan support. Sessions, a former Assistant United States Attorney, was a staunch supporter of this approach throughout his time in the Senate.

To be clear, the overall violent crime and murder rates are still near multi-decade lows. However, the most recent available data should prompt a rededication to the policing and criminal justice strategies that have been proven to work. Given that public safety is at stake, all law-abiding Americans have a vested interest in seeing an aggressive approach to combatting violent crime. Gun owners have additional interest in seeing the law upheld. Should the violent crime rate advance any further, anti-gun advocates and politicians will be all-too willing to once again falsely portray gun owners and our rights as to blame.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.