When what they (think they) know is wrong

The renewal of calls for gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings is, as usual for political disputes, fraught with emotionalism triumphing over facts and logic, not to mention brazen disregard for our constitutional rights.

For instance: Is there an epidemic of school shootings right now? Northeastern University reports:

The deadly school shooting this month in Parkland, Florida, has ignited national outrage and calls for action on gun reform. But while certain policies may help decrease gun violence in general, it’s unlikely that any of them will prevent mass school shootings, according to James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern.

Since 1996, there have been 16 multiple victim shootings in schools, or incidents involving 4 or more victims and at least 2 deaths by firearms, excluding the assailant.

Of these, 8 are mass shootings, or incidents involving 4 or more deaths, excluding the assailant. …
Mass school shootings are incredibly rare events. In research publishing later this year, Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel found that on average, mass murders occur between 20 and 30 times per year, and about one of those incidents on average takes place at a school. …

Fridel and Fox used data collected by USA Today, the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, Congressional Research Service, Gun Violence Archive, Stanford Geospatial Center and Stanford Libraries, Mother Jones, Everytown for Gun Safety, and a NYPD report on active shooters.

Their research also finds that shooting incidents involving students have been declining since the 1990s. …

Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox said.

“There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents. There are around 55 million school children in the United States, and on average over the past 25 years, about 10 students per year were killed by gunfire at school, according to Fox and Fridel’s research.

Ryan McMaken adds:

Part of the problem with accepting the crisis narrative is that it ignores other priorities and other problems that may deserve our attention elsewhere.

After all, resources for schools — or anything else — are not unlimited, and it is unclear that extremely rare events like school shootings can be put forward as a priority.

This problem of priorities can be seen in the fact that cities where snow falls irregularly do not maintain a huge fleet of snowplows. In Naples, Italy last week, for example, the city experienced the largest snowfall it’s seen in 50 years. According to the Daily Mail, the snowfall was seen as a citywide emergency and “[r]esidents have been told not to leave their homes unless it is ‘strictly necessary.'” One man was said to have even frozen to death in the unexpectedly frigid temperatures.

Now, if even a few inches of snow can bring the city to a standstill and endanger the lives of residents, why does the city not have far more snow plows than it does? Why is there not a network of emergency workers to ensure that residents are not caught in the cold where they can be injured or even killed by cold temperatures?

The answer, of course, is that the opportunity cost of such measures would be extremely high. By maintaining personnel and equipment designed to address a rare snowfall, the city would be foregoing the opportunity to train people or purchase equipment for a wide variety of other activities that are no doubt also deemed essential.

While school shootings no doubt have a greater psychological impact than frigid temperatures, it is no less true that spending large amounts of resources on anti-shooting measures carry with them their own costs.

Now, in the US, many organizations, both public and private have elected to devote sizable amounts of resources to security. But none of them deny that there is an opportunity cost to doing so.

Indeed, opponents of added security in schools have been quick to point out the costs of more security measures.

And yet, proponents of more gun control act as if there are no opportunity costs to these measures. In reality, of course, the costs of enforcing government prohibitions can be very high, both in terms of tax dollars and costs imposed upon otherwise law abiding citizens. The drug war has made this quite clear. In the absence of individual gun ownership, professional security will become more necessary, and in many cases more costly. This imposes a real cost on citizens, especially on those who cannot afford professional security. Relying on the police for protection, of course, has been shown to be unwise at best. 

Many observers will still point out that even a small number of school shootings is too many. That’s true enough, but when the multi-decade trend is downward, it would hardly be honest to attempt to frame the current situation as a “crisis.” Indeed the challenge should be to discover what factors have led to the decline in violence, and act accordingly.

Justin Fox adds more broadly:

There’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about rising crime. For good reason: Violent crime and murder were in fact up in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016. Early indications are that crime rates fell in 2017, though. 1 And the really big crime story of our time remains how much it has fallen in this country over the past quarter-century.

The blue line in the above chart comes from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Crime in the United States reports, the 2016 edition of which came out last September. The gray line is from the less-well-known National Crime Victimization Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from which 2016 data was released in December. 2  As you can see, the BJS data — based in 2016 on a survey of 134,690 households — shows an even sharper drop than the data the FBI collects from law enforcement agencies.

The great crime decline is not the result, then, of police departments fudging numbers or victims deciding it’s pointless to report crimes. If anything, recent FBI crime data is probably more reflective of actual crime incidence than that of several decades ago, meaning that today’s violent crime rate is probably not really more than twice that of the early 1960s. Since 1965, Gallup has been asking Americans, “Is there any area near where you live — that is, within a mile — where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” In October 2017, just 30 percent of respondents said yes, tying an all-time low. Then there’s the FBI data on murders, which tend not to go unreported.

The murder rate in 2014 was lower than at any time since the FBI started keeping track in 1960. That is … remarkable. In his illuminating new book “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence,” New York University sociologist Patrick Sharkey takes things a few steps further:

Because of shoddy data prior to 1960, it is impossible to know with certainty the exact rate of crime and violence in the first five decades of the twentieth century or at any earlier point in the history of the country. But the most persuasive research from historical mortality records concludes that the homicide rate was likely substantially higher in the first half of the twentieth century than it was in the second half. In fact, the prevalence of murder has been falling, albeit with spikes and troughs, throughout the country’s history. If the historical trends in murder derived from mortality records are roughly accurate, and all indications suggest that they are, then we are led to a startling conclusion: 2014 was not only the safest year of the past five decades, it was one of the safest years in U.S. history.

To repeat: Violent crime was possibly near or at an all-time low in the U.S. in 2014, and while it’s up a bit since then, it is still quite low by historical standards. Yet except for in 2000 and 2001, most of the Americans contacted by Gallup’s pollsters — usually in the same surveys in which a majority reported feeling safe walking around their neighborhoods alone at night — have voiced the opinion that crime is on the rise nationally:

The respondents to these polls aren’t totally clueless: The percentage of those who thought crime was getting worse fell sharply in the 1990s as crime rates fell sharply, and bottomed out in 2000 and 2001 just as the great crime decline began to flatten out. And yes, violent crime did rise in 2015 and 2016. But there’s clearly an unwarrantedly negative tilt. It takes a lot to convince Americans that crime isn’t getting worse.

Why is that? Part of it is probably hometown bias. Americans think their local public school is great but public schools in general are terrible, and they appear to think similarly about crime. Then there’s the way the media conveys information about crime. More Americans get their news from local television broadcasts than any other source, and the unofficial motto of local TV news is “If it bleeds, it leads.” Finally, politicians have on occasion been known play up fears of crime because they think it can get them votes or help them pass legislation.

It seems obvious that one thing schools should be teaching children is to not make decisions based on inaccurate information, even if making decisions based on facts and logic instead of emotion is an impossible mission anymore.



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