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We hear about violence nearly every day. We learn of spikes in shootings and homicides in some U.S. cities, including Hartford. We see footage of mass shootings at, most recently, Umpqua Community College in Oregon, continuing a long string of similar tragedies from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Aurora to Newtown.
Many people said after Newtown it would never happen again. But it did. To understand better what possible solutions could be, we need first to know the facts and results of well-done studies. As an assistant professor of criminal justice, I’d like to take a look at some numbers and research evidence to help us understand what gun control can and can’t do.
I’d like to point out spikes in crime (including homicides, and shootings) can be treated the same way as spikes or dips in stock market indices are. If the Dow Jones dropped significantly this week, would it mean we are entering a recession? Or does it mean there was a temporary fluctuation in the stock market and it will be back at the normal level next week? Most of the time, we just have to wait and see.
In Connecticut, just as in the rest of the country, violent and property crime began to decline in the early 1990s; the trend has continued so far
Crimes of every type in Connecticut decreased dramatically during the 1990s (most violent crimes by half; most property crimes by a whopping two-thirds) and plateaued during the 2000s. Since 2010, Connecticut crime rates have held.
So let’s look at homicides in Connecticut (one of the most well-reported and hard-to-misclassify violent crimes). According to data from coroners’ offices compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the last 10 years, Connecticut had just over 1,200 homicides. More than 800 of these, or about two-thirds, were committed with guns.
So even though our state in 1995 implemented a law that requires a person to obtain a permit or license (with a background check and eight hours of safety training required), most homicides here (just like everywhere else in the country) involve guns.
Alternatively, Missouri in 2007 repealed the law that required licensing for handgun purchases. A group of researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed what happened. While in Connecticut, there was a 40 percent drop in gun homicides, Missouri has experienced a 25 percent increase in gun homicides.
To keep things in perspective: Most gun deaths are not homicides but suicides. During the past 10 years in Connecticut, there were 3,200 suicides (2.5 times more than homicides), and about a third of these (1,000 deaths) were suicides committed with firearms. Johns Hopkins researchers found a roughly 15 percent decrease in gun suicides in Connecticut and a 16 percent increase in gun suicides in Missouri.
Clearly, stricter gun control laws save some people from themselves the same way that seatbelt laws do.
Evidence of the declines in gun suicides following stricter gun regulation also comes from Australia and Israel. In Australia, after massive gun buybacks and tight restrictions on gun sales were implemented following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, gun suicides fell almost 80 percent and mass shootings have been virtually eliminated. In Israel, a policy change was implemented prohibiting Israeli Defense Force members from bringing home their weapons for weekend leave. As a result, suicides among young soldiers fell by 40 percent.
I study crime trends and causes of violence for a living. And I teach undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students about some common misconceptions related to criminal justice data and crime explanations. We must keep our society well informed to promote constructive (rather than divisive) debates about the causes of crime and possible solutions to crime prevention.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American politician and sociologist, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Maria Tcherni-Buzzeo, of West Hartford, is an assistant professor of criminal justice in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.
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