Crime Rate Decline Calls for Introspection — and Caution

By Michael Fumento

January 22, 1997
Copyright 1997 by Michael Fumento

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Hallelujah! Praise the lord and don’t pass the ammunition! Why? Because across the country, murder rates are plummeting. According to new FBI figures, the rate fell 7 percent in the first half of 1996, continuing a three-year trend.

The down side of this is that next to other western countries, the United States is still comparable to a World War I battlefield. Whatever we may be doing right, we need to be doing a lot more. But what are we doing, anyway?

First, let’s make clear that anybody who says there’s a simple or complete answer is either lying to you or to themselves. That includes the claims of Sheriff Wild Bill Clinton that he done rode them varmints outta town on a rail.

"Crime has dropped in the last four years as we worked to put 100,000 police on the streets," he said in his January 4 radio address. He has also repeatedly given credit to the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and background check for handgun purchasers.

Some people think Clinton should just stick to what he does best.

But note Clinton’s careful wording about those cops. He said he worked to put them there, not that they actually exist. Indeed, for the most part they don’t. Studies show that at most the legislation has added about 17,000 new officers, and many of those would have been added anyway but are now simply paid for out of federal funds instead of local ones.

As to the Brady bill, Mrs. Brady humbly boasted at the Democratic National Convention that her husband’s namesake law "has helped keep more than 100,000 felons and other prohibited purchasers from buying handguns."

Actually, the White House itself has only claimed 60,000, and a General Accounting Office report last year found that half of those rejected were for administrative reasons — mostly paperwork errors. Only 5 percent were rejected because of violent crime convictions and most probably just proceeded to buy a gun on the streets.

Thus, a University of Chicago study found recently that the Brady Bill was about as effective as The Brady Bunch in preventing crime.

The main way we know that neither Clinton nor anyone in the federal government deserves credit for falling crime is that about 95 percent of crime is handled by state and local agencies. That’s easily measured, because about 95 percent of the criminals behind bars are there on state charges, not federal ones.

So what were some of those state and local initiatives that might have helped reduce violent crime?

One was pointed to in the aforementioned University of Chicago study, which found a direct correlation between the increasing number of states allowing people to carry concealed firearms and decreasing violent crimes in those states. Apparently, many criminals start rethinking their careers when they realize their next potential victim may exercise his or her constitutional right to blow their attacker’s head off.

The Chicago study made gun control advocates so hot you could have fried eggs on their heads. Nevertheless, they were unable to refute the data, which showed that when such laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by 8.5 percent, and rapes and aggravated assaults fell by 5 and 7 percent, respectively.

On the other hand, the major city with the highest drop in murders, New York, has no such provision for carrying concealed weapons. New York may be reaping the benefits of what criminologist James Q. Wilson has called the "broken glass" effect.

Basically, this means officers take the time to follow up on and prevent even the little crimes like vandalism that formerly they ignored in favor of concentrating on big crimes. By paying attention to lesser infractions, the theory goes, the police instill respect for the law and uphold values in neighborhoods. This then cuts down on the occurance of major crimes.

Clearly something wonderful is happening in the Big Apple, and the broken glass theory deserves continued application and observation.

A steady rise in prison capacity may also be helping to reduce violent crime rates. Since 1980, the nation’s prison population has tripled. Just in the last two years, the population of state and federal prisons has increased by almost 14 percent. In the last four years, the average time served for serious crimes increased by a half.

In 1994, of those seeking parole, almost 80 percent were denied. By contrast, in 1990 80 percent who sought parole got it.

But before we wear out our palms slapping ourselves on the back for the decreasing crime rate, a little humility and caution are in order. Without doubt, one major factor has simply been a decline in the portion of the populace that is at the age that commits violent crimes.

Further, to listen to highly respected criminologists like Dr. John Diulio at Princeton University and David Kopel at the Independence Institute in Colorado, we may just be in the eye of the storm.

The reason? "It’s not just the age of the population, but the conditions under which it was raised," Kopel explains. And more and more of our kids are being raised without fathers. Without fathers, young men don’t turn to Hillary Clinton’s "village," to raise them; they turn to gangs and criminal activity.

"In 2010 we may be reaping a whirlwind from the family-wrecking policies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s," says Kopel. I pray he’s wrong. I fear he may be right.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on crime.