Since 2015, when the U.S. saw homicides spike nearly 11 percent, gun violence has been rising in many American cities. Some jurisdictions have seen homicides approach or exceed historical peaks. This grim trend has hit black males the hardest, as their firearm-homicide victimization rate hit a 30-year high in 2021.
The violence has many in the nation’s capital arguing about how best to stop the bleeding. Some argue that little can be done as long as gun-control measures—like expanding background-check requirements, banning assault weapons, and placing new restrictions on magazine capacity—remain impossible to pass. But traditional gun-control measures are not the only, or the best, means to reduce gun violence.
Gun-control measures would apply to a massive population of gun owners, the vast majority of whom pose no risk of committing a criminal shooting. Gun violence is driven by a tiny slice of the population, almost all of whom, by virtue of their age or criminal histories, cannot lawfully possess firearms under current conditions. Data consistently show that gun violence is geographically hyper-concentrated and that both shooting victims and perpetrators (the first, to a lesser extent) live within small social networks of individuals with lengthy criminal histories.
Going back to the early 2000s, just 77 of the more than 3,000 counties and county-equivalents in the continental United States have seen 27 percent to 28 percent of the country’s firearm homicides, annually. Within counties, statistical analyses have long shown that gun violence concentrates within micro-geographic hot spots in a relative handful of neighborhoods. In New York City, for example, about 1 percent of the city’s street segments consistently see a quarter of the city’s violent crime. Data published by the NYPD going back to 2008 show that more than 95 percent of both shooting victims and suspects are either black or Hispanic. In Chicago, data from 2015 and 2016, analyzed by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, showed that 80 percent of shooting victims had at least one prior arrest (with 40 percent having more than ten) and that more than half had a current or prior gang affiliation. That same analysis showed that nine in ten shooting suspects had a prior arrest (on average, suspects had nearly 12 priors). Finally, a recent analysis of gun homicides in Oakland published by the California Partnership for Safe Communities concluded that the individuals at the highest risk of a firearm homicide (mostly young male gang members with extensive criminal histories) in that city constituted less than 0.5 percent of the city’s population.
Imposing additional restrictions on tens of millions of Americans in an attempt to reduce a problem caused by a small subpopulation will achieve little. Indeed, the population we need to worry about has already shown itself to be undeterred by penalties much harsher than those that would attach to new gun-control measures.
The view that gun violence rises or falls depending on the nation’s willingness to enact gun-control legislation rests on a narrow view of the issue. It fails to account for the larger effects that policing, prosecuting, and punishing all kinds of criminal activity in high-crime areas can have on gun-violence rates. It ignores the fact that illegally possessed guns (and, therefore, potential shooters) tend to be discovered via routine traffic stops. Research consistently shows that policing hot spots more intensively significantly reduces violence in those places.
When policing is guided by careful analysis and backed by aggressive prosecutions that target high-risk individuals, the effects are substantial. A 2021 study on “precision policing” in New York City found that targeted “gang takedowns,” in which members were prosecuted for various conspiracy charges (often drug offenses), “explain nearly one quarter of the decline in gun violence in New York City’s public housing communities over the [prior] eight years.”
Additional gun-control measures are therefore unlikely to yield much in the way of gun-violence reductions, given how poorly tailored they are to the nature of the problem. Far better to focus on strategies and tactics with real track records of reducing gun violence in the sorts of places where it tends to concentrate.
Why not take this more effective road? The answer, it seems, is a combination of political pride and discomfort with the disparities in enforcement that a more narrowly tailored approach would engender. Neither objection withstands scrutiny. This isn’t the first time America has seen gun violence spike. Policymakers can and should learn from the past.
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