Gun Control Works

My conclusion is that residents of Britain don't expect to be in a gunfight, so a knife is enough
05/06/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

They say: "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight." What do we make of the fact that outside of three big cities in the UK, the great majority of homicides utilize knives?

My conclusion is that residents of Britain don't expect to be in a gunfight, so a knife is enough.

In light of the proliferation of guns in the United States, that's a pretty important takeaway. A knife-wielder can't kill a roomful of children in a matter of seconds.

My thanks to the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) for this insight, gleaned from their just-released 10-year review of the UK Peace Index. As a member of its International Advisory Board, I have been following the various versions of the Peace Index and I even helped develop some of them.

The elevator pitch for the survey of nonviolence in the UK is that violence in the UK is down 11 percent. The conclusion is based on seven years of work by the IEP and its founder, Steve Killelea, an Australian businessman who created a successful software business. (His last name is pronounced with the accent on KILL! He is comfortable with this paradox.)

Killelea made it his personal quest to try to quantify the economic value of nonviolence, which the IEP defines as a combination of both (1) peace with other countries and (2) a low-cost of violence within the country. The IEP has been looking for connections between non-violence and economic prosperity and has put professors and think tanks to work examining relationships between violence and the economy in every country in the world.

The lessons for the USA from this report are multiple. I have picked out just two topics: (1) Implications for gun control, and (2) Cell phones and crime rates. To read the full study, go to Gun Control Works

The IEP's UK report shows that two out of three US homicides are committed with guns, while in the UK the figure is only one out of thirteen. This is on the face of it a compelling argument for gun control and should be thrust in front of the U.S. Senate, which failed to pass a gun control bill despite polls showing 90 percent of the public favor such a law. Mayor Bloomberg warned on April 18: "You wait until next November. How are they going to ... answer [the question], 'Why didn't you do something to stop that, senator?' That can't be good politics. It just can't be." Mark Glazer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which Bloomberg founded, said: "The next step is tapping the extraordinary outrage in the country today and channeling it in a useful direction -- mainly at the senators who voted no and declined to do what 90 percent of the American public asked them to do. We'll do whatever it takes."

What Bloomberg and his organization are recommending is something that in fact happened after the March 14, 1996 shooting of 16 children at a school in Dunblane, near Stirling, Scotland. Through a strong public lobby, the Gun Control Network, the British Government has instituted a complete ban on handguns. In 2012-13, Britain had 87 gun deaths, more than half using shotguns; of them, 45 were suicides, nearly two-thirds of them using shotguns. Firearms offences have been brought down from 25,000 in 2002 to fewer than 10,000 in 2011.

One result: Whereas gun violence occurs all over the United States -- east-west, urban- rural, north-south -- more than half of all gun-related offences in the UK occur in just three police jurisdictions, namely Metropolitan London, Greater Manchester, and West Midlands (Birmingham metro area). This suggests that gun use has largely been suppressed everywhere except in the hard-core anonymous big cities.

So violent lawbreakers resort to knives. New UK offense categories such as 'aggravated knife crime' have been added. Measures like mandatory life sentences for those who commit a second serious violent crime or sexual assault have been put in place to deter knife crime in particular. ᅡᄋ To summarize the contrast, in 2009-2011, for every American knife homicide there were five gun homicides. For every UK gun homicide, there were five knife homicides, the reverse of the U.S situation.

Cell Phones and Crime Rates The other area where the UK Peace Index has made a contribution is in helping to narrow down the likely explanations of recent decreases in crime rates, which have for many years been in the news in both the UK and the United States. The London Economist issue of April 20 ran an article "Down These Not So Mean Streets" about the steady decline of the British crime rate over two decades, to half its earlier level despite a continuing serious recession.

The lead domestic story in Britain on April 25 was crime rates, as an official crime survey appeared at the same time as the UK Peace Index. The annual household British Crime Survey reported a continuing drop in crimes, a steady decline from the 19 million estimated in the mid-1990s to 8.9 million crimes -- the same 50 percent drop that the Economist cited from police reports, although the police recorded only 3.7 million crimes. Compared with 2011, crimes fell as much as 15 percent in the UK for the category of criminal damage. Robbery (stealing with the threat of violence) was also down more than 10 percent.

The UK Peace Index at the same time showed that the incidence of violent offences -- which is higher than in the United States - is falling faster in the UK than in other countries in Europe or in the United States.

The Financial Times the next day pinpointed the newsworthiness of all of these reports, namely the incongruity between the data and theories propounded by economists and others. Headlined "Crime Drop Poses Puzzle for Social Scientists", it cites the following factors as contributing the lowered crime rate:

Police Deployment. The British Government was quick to claim credit for the crime drop through better use of police, as the UK police force has fallen to the lowest level in more than ten years. Unquestionably, police are used more effectively than in the past. BUT crime rates have fallen long after police methods changed.

More Perps in Prison. Hard-liners in the USA and Britain argue that tougher sentencing that jails more criminals has pulled criminals off the streets and served as a deterrent others. Since the 1970s, starting with Nixon's war on drugs, the USA built up the largest prison population in the world, to the recent level of 2.2 million, having increased the incarceration fourfold in 1978-2008. With less than 1/20th of the world's population, the USA has one-fourth of its prisoners. Higher incarceration rates and sentences, originally targeting drug sales, later also rose for violent (murder, robbery, assault) and property crimes. BUT while U.S. incarceration rates have recently been declining, most crime rates continue to fall.

Reduced Air Pollution. If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. High lead in the air has been linked to teenage misbehavior, so environmentalists like Jessica Reyes argue that reduction in lead pollution could explain lower crime rates. BUT is the impact likely to be so rapid and continuous?

Legalized Abortion. Stanford Law Professor John J. Donahue III and Chicago Economics Professor Steven D. Levitt in 2001 argued that legalized abortion meant that fewer children were being born to mothers who could not afford an abortion -- or did not dare to get one -- when it was illegal. BUT this event analysis could be confused with something else that is occurring at the same time. The original article is well-argued but the thesis and data, disseminated in Levitt's Freakonomics book, have been widely disputed. Numerous critics of the theory observe that the presumed causality based on national law does not work very well with state data using state laws.

Missing from the FT story is another hypothesis that does a good job of explaining both the decline in most crime rates and an increase in larceny (thefts from people's person without threats, i.e., skillful pickpocketing).

Growing Cell-Phone Use.
Cell phones and pocket-sized communication and photographic technology started to come into widespread use in the 1990s. Three implications:
  • Cell phones provide users with the ability to call friends and police if they are threatened or come upon a crime, and could explain the drop in crime. The addition of cameras to cell phones made them even more effective. This theory is supported at both the national and the state level, according to University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Jonathan Klick; JohnMacDonald, chair of Penn's Department of Criminology; and Thomas Stratmann of George Mason University, in their research paper "Mobile Phones and Crime Deterrence: An Underappreciated Link,"
  • Cell phones are increasingly the target of thieves. The increased incidence of small thefts, larceny, can be connected to the growing ownership of PDAs and laptop computers. Hence it is not surprising that one area of crime that is growing in the USA and Britain is small thefts.
  • The increasing involvement of the police in keeping identification codes for computers and PDAs means that reporting of these crimes is likely to go up!