Talk of the Town - Guns and crime August 19 2000

Focus on criminals, not buyers

Despite the best efforts of social scientists, crime and punishment has never been complicated business, and two recent news reports confirm what common sense has been telling us all along. If you want to reduce crime, focus on controlling criminals, not average citizens. Early this month, the New York Times reported that America's prison population — also known as the number of killers, rapists, armed robbers and drug pushers safely cut off from the rest of us — expanded again last year, by 3.4 percent.

With crime declining over the past eight years, the paper seemed puzzled by the continuing growth in the prison population. The headline summed it up: "Number in Prison Population Grows Despite Crime Reduction."

A better headline might have explained, "Number in Prison Population Grows in Tandem with Crime Rate Decline."

There is no contradiction, after all, between a rising prison population and a falling crime rate. In recent years, crime has declined, not disappeared. Innocents continue to be robbed, raped and killed every day. Predators continue to be brought to justice. And, even with crime rates down, the number of criminals going into prison is greater than the number coming out.

Instead of a contradiction, there is a straightforward connection between incarceration and crime rates: The two are inversely related, with one tending to go up as the other comes down.

America's incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1980. With so many more lawbreakers behind bars, it should be no surprise that crime rates have declined. But it is surprising — at least to the Times' liberal news staff. Trying to refute the obvious connection, the reporter noted that growth in the nation's prison population "hit a high of 8.7 percent in 1994, well after the crime wave [began] to decline in 1991."

Yet, growth in the overall prison population is a function not only of the number of people entering the system but also the number exiting. As such, get-tough sentencing policies enacted well before 1994 contributed to that year's steep rise in prison population — and the ongoing slide in crime rates.

Even as the Times was unwittingly making the case for America's high rate of incarceration, the Journal of the American Medical Association was reporting that restrictions imposed by the Brady gun law on average citizens were utterly ineffectual in reducing firearm homicides.

Passed with great fanfare in 1993 and relentlessly trumpeted by Bill Clinton and Al Gore ever since, the Brady Act requires gun retailers across the country to impose a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases and conduct background checks of all buyers.

By comparing post-Brady homicide rates in states where the restrictions were new to rates in states with similar, existing restrictions, study authors Jens Ludwig and Philip J. Cook found "no evidence that implementation of the Brady Act was associated with a reduction in homicide rates."

The study won't dissuade gun control advocates, who remain convinced that limiting legal access to firearms for everyone will reduce gun crime. This notion is based not on hard evidence — as the JAMA study shows — but on the flawed assumption that every would-be gun buyer in America is a potential killer. And that just isn't so.

This fall, the presidential election will offer voters a real choice on the issues of gun control and crime prevention.

In recent years, crime has gone down in spite of Clinton Administration policies that hassle gun buyers while going soft on gun criminals. The president made soccer moms swoon with empty blather about "protecting our kids," but the hard truth is that federal gun prosecutions plunged 46 percent between 1992 and 1998.

Gore would see Clinton's approach and raise him big time. He's vowing to ban inexpensive handguns, license handgun owners and compile a federal database of all new gun buyers.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, would bring a more thoughtful approach to crime and guns, taking aim at criminals with aggressive enforcement of current gun laws while giving law-abiding gun buyers a break with instant background checks, not waiting periods.

Sounds like a winner to me.

Contact Luke Boggs at lukeboggs@hotmail.com

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