Progressives have discovered the root cause of violent crime and it isn’t actually criminals

In a rational world, a 55% spike in homicides would prompt an equivalent increase in arrests, but instead arrests have fallen over the same period, putting more criminals on the street. Meanwhile, progressives insist that guns are actually to to blame and they have the non-causative data to prove it.

As New York City reels from the shooting death of a police officer this past weekend and Los Angeles mourns the stabbing death of a graduate student, progressives are starting to accept that the massive increase in violent crime is real and unsustainable, resulting in thousands of more murders per year along with shocking new robberies and attacks on property.  Unfortunately, these same progressives seem hardwired in their refusal to accept the obvious:  The increase in crime began with the rise of the defund the police movement, the implementation of more relaxed policing policies in general, and the push for bail and prosecutorial reform that ultimately puts criminals back on the street.  These three factors together have, in my opinion, put police forces, especially in major cities, into a defensive crouch rather than an aggressive posture even as the number of criminals has increased, a toxic combination.  Perhaps even worse, many of the progressive leaders pushing these policies are unrepentant and literally bragging about them.

New York District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, is a perfect example.  Earlier this year, he announced via memo that his office will not prosecute what they consider minor offenses including armed robberies and drug dealing.  The memo describes how armed robbery will now be considered petty larceny or another misdemeanor rather than facing a 25-year prison sentence.  Convicted criminals caught with weapons other than guns will also be downgraded to misdemeanors instead of a potential 7-year sentence.  Burglars who rob residential storage areas, parts of homes that “aren’t accessible to a living area,” and businesses in mixed use buildings will only face charges for breaking and entering.  Drug dealers “acting as a low-level agent of a seller” will be treated as minor possession charges.  “ADAs should use their judgment and experience to evaluate the person arrested, and identify people: who suffer from mental illness; who are unhoused; who commit crimes of poverty; or who suffer from substance use disorders,” District Attorney Bragg noted, meaning even violent offenders should be given as much leniency as possible.  “Charges should be brought consistent with the goal of providing services to such individuals, and leverage during plea negotiations should not be a factor in this decision.”  Incredibly, he believes “These policy changes not only will, in and of themselves, make us safer; they also will free up prosecutorial resources to focus on violent crime.”

Perhaps needless to say, the memo has caused a lot of controversy, but District Attorney Bragg has remained committed to the course.  After, he appeared at a virtual event with the New York University School of Law, and called this broad application of prosecutorial discretion “a bedrock principle embedded in our Constitution.”  He explained his thinking as follows, “Look, one thing that has happened — and it’s happened in our state, it’s happened federally — is the proliferation of criminal laws,” otherwise known as calling crimes crimes and locking up the people responsible.  “No prosecutor is enforcing every single law all the time,” he continued. “We’re all exercising prosecutorial discretion,” adding, “You know, what I and some others have done is: We said it out loud in the spirit of transparency.”  Meanwhile, business leaders are speaking out, telling District Attorney Bragg on a conference call, “The tone is [New York City] is lawless, and his memo empowers lawlessness.”  Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity company Blackstone, claimed they were having difficulty getting workers back in the office “unless they feel safe, and they don’t feel safe.”  District Attorney Bragg also seems to be on a collision course with new mayor, Eric Adams, who has promised a much tougher, more proactive approach to crime.

It remains to be seen whose vision will prevail, but in the meantime progressives have been busy coming up with alternative explanations for the crime wave.  The pandemic, social services, and more, basically everything except actually blaming the criminals and it was inevitable they would turn their focus to guns.  Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur, writing for The Atlantic, recently claimed “The Data Are Pointing to One Major Driver of America’s Murder Spike,” noting a “massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 seems to have contributed to the recent rise in homicides.”  They believe this “hypothesis is simpler, and perhaps has significant explanatory power” than others, citing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives that suggest “newly purchased weapons found their way into crimes much more quickly and often last year than in prior years.”  This data, they claim, “seems to point to a definitive conclusion” that the guns themselves are killing people.  The ATF compiles their data from a trace of nearly 400,000 firearms in 2020 alone.  These traces are performed “at the request of a law enforcement agency engaged in a bona fide criminal investigation where a firearm has been used or is suspected to have been used in a crime” though not all recovered guns are traced and many are not recovered at all.

The limitations of the data aside, the sample size remains large, and the latest set indicates a change in a key metric, the “time to crime” of each gun traced, that is the time between when the weapon was purchased (legally) and when it was recovered after commission of a crime.   In this regard, the number of guns whose time to crime was less than six months increased by 90% between 2019 and 2020, meaning guns were used in crimes much sooner than prior years.  In 2020, 23% of guns were used within 6 months of purchase, but between 2015 to 2019, that figure was only about 13%.  The average time to crime dropped substantially as a result, from 8.3 years to 7, plus about half the guns in 2020 had a time to crime of three or more  years, compared to over 70% over the past decade.  In addition, the states that ran more background checks and thus sold more guns saw an even greater shortening in the time to crime.  Mr. Asher and Mr. Arthur note, “All told, what this reveals is that guns used in crimes in 2020 were newer than in the past. Additionally, more guns were recovered in 2020 than in 2019 across a host of crimes.”  They quote Aaron Chalfin, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “You do see these guns ending up in risky situations more quickly than in the past.”  This leads them to conclude, “Right now, we know that gun sales rose dramatically starting in March 2020, and that murder—driven by gun murders—increased substantially a few months later…It stands to reason that new guns helped feed 2020’s murder surge, though the data to confirm this conclusion remain agonizingly out of reach. The data aren’t perfect, but they’re strongly suggestive: More guns are behind America’s murder spike.”

Of course, nothing resembling a rational explanation for why presumably law abiding citizens are suddenly seeking out guns and then proceeding to murder people with them is provided.  Putting this another way, I do not own a gun myself, but if one were to appear on my desk right now, I am not going to change my plans for the afternoon to go on a killing spree.  Inanimate objects do not commit acts of violence on their own, a gun can no more kill someone without a person pulling the trigger than an SUV can drive through a Christmas parade in Wisconsin without someone behind the wheel.  Therefore, if there is an increased demand for guns and illegal sellers are responding to that demand by putting more on the street, it must be driven by people planning to commit crimes with them.  The real question is:  Why has there been a sudden increase in demand?  What is prompting criminals to both want more guns and be willing to use them to kill more people?

The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal provides a potential answer by looking closely at Chicago, a city that witnessed 836 homicides in 2021, the most in 25 years, emblematic of similar spikes happening around the country.  Homicides have been rising in the windy city since 2019, increasing 55% in 2020 and then another 3.2% in 2021.  Despite this surge, Chicago actually has less police on the streets than before, understaffed by at least a thousand officers, after the mayor already refused to fill some 600 vacancies.  Considering the entire force only totals some 12,138 officers, 1,600 is a significant percentage and force reduction.  It doesn’t help that recruitment is down dramatically as well.  Last year, 5,000 people applied, compared to up to 30,000 in the past.  The latest graduating class was just 13 new officers, less than 1% of the total needed.  To fill this gap, existing police officers are being asked to work 12-hour shifts with reduced breaks, prompting one sergeant to tell WBEZ Chicago, “People are so tired…it’s total burnout…working murder after murder, shooting after shooting.”  Days off have been canceled as well.

The city is not the only government organization at fault either.  The federal government is involved as well, forcing the Chicago police to “reform” their tactics, making them less proactive.  In May, for example, a new policy banned many foot pursuits.  Now, officers can only engage in a foot pursuit if there is “probable cause for an arrest or it is believed an individual has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.”  The new policy includes a preference for surveillance and containment, abandoning pursuits if the officers can’t guarantee they can control the suspect once they catch them, and a litany of calls to understand the risk, as if there was no risk at all in a criminal getting away.  Amazingly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insists this much more criminal friendly policy is going to improve public safety.  “Because foot pursuits are one of the most dangerous actions that police officers can engage in, we cannot afford to wait any longer to put a policy in place that regulates them.  The important parameters outlined in this policy will not only protect our officers, the public and potential suspects during foot pursuits, but it also serves as a step forward in our mission to modernize and reform our police department.”  This is a bizarre way to describe the obvious message to criminals:  Run and you may not be chased, at all.  Considering the belief that one will get away with a crime is fundamental to the will to commit one, the new policy, like many others around the country, is essentially an incentive to commit more crimes.

It’s impossible to attribute the unique contribution of each of these factors, but the combined impact has resulted in a decrease in arrests for violent crime almost as large as the increase in crime in the first place:  Arrests were down 39% in Chicago in 2021 compared to 2019.  In other words, crime itself is skyrocketing at the same time the police are arresting less people for it, another implicit incentive to commit even more crime.  “Many of our officers are not arresting people, are letting crimes that happen right in front of them go by because they don’t want to be misconstrued as being racist or being held liable for any kind of misconceived notions of brutality or whatever,” Raymond Lopez, alderman of Chicago’s 15th Ward, explained at a recent city council meeting.  It gets worse:  Even when a violent criminal is arrested, Chicago authorities have trouble detaining them prior to trial, some commit additional crimes even while under electronic monitoring. This has incensed even Mayor Lightfoot, who asked the obvious, “Do you feel safer knowing these numbers? They’re right back on the street walking big as day as if there is zero accountability. That’s what’s contributing to the level of brazenness that we’re seeing on our street.”

The same dynamics are playing out in urban centers all over America. The root cause of the crime wave has little if anything to do with guns.  Instead, it’s simple:  There are more criminals on the street as a result of bail reform and declines in arrests.  These criminals are so brazen now they freely commit crimes even while out on bail, awaiting trial.  In any rational world, a 55% spike in homicides would prompt an equivalent increase in arrests, but instead of acknowledging this reality progressive would rather pretend they have identified non-causative data to support the conclusion that guns are to blame.  Sadly, it appears that is precisely what President Joe Biden plans to do as well, as he readies a new push for gun control.  Last week, he was asked about the recent hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, TX.  His reply?  Blame the guns even as he said gun control would not have stopped it.  “The guns are—we should be—the idea of background checks are critical. But you can’t stop something like this if someone is on the street buying something from somebody else on the street. Except that there’s too—there’s so many guns that have been sold of late; it’s just ridiculous.”  In reality, what’s ridiculous is their brazen refusal to accept any responsibility at all for the obvious result of their own policies.

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