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Violence in America is lower today than it was thirty years ago. I read the story online. It quoted my brother, Dr. Ted Kirkpatrick , a criminologist.

I didn’t understand how this was possible. I decided to ask Ted some questions and he has allowed me to put his most interesting analysis in this blog. He said he would not charge me. Dr. Ted Kirkpatrick  is a clinical professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He is also Co-Director of Justiceworks, a non-partisan research consortium of academicians and professionals addressing  issues in crime, safety, security, and the administration of justice in America. As you know I am a Christian; my brother, Ted is an atheist.He tells me when he dies he will “all dressed up with nowhere to go”. I, of course, am always quietly trying to convert him. This makes for fun family holidays!  All kidding aside, he is terrific father, husband and secular humanist.  He is a sought-after expert on issues of violence when tragedies erupt.

Dr. Ted Kirkpatrick, Co-Director of Justiceworks at University of New Hampshire

Dr. Ted Kirkpatrick, Co-Director of Justiceworks at University of New Hampshire

How can violence in America be on the decline?

The fact is, if we measure our personal safety by the level of violent crime, we are safer in 2012, in this country, than we were in 1992. It doesn’t give us any comfort when we watch the slaughter of the innocents like in Newtown … but that’s in fact the case.”

What about the proliferation of violence in the media: fiction and non fiction?

Speaking from a professional point of view, the prolific growth of movie, TV, and music violence has no causal effect on gun violence…or homicide. The fact is that there has never been more of the former than now and yet rates of violent crime of all types have not been this low in thirty years. Having said that, our appetite for violent imagery may say something about the character of American culture.

What about the impact of the recession?

Economic explanations are similarly suspect since the recession has not produced an uptick in violent crime. It’s worth noting that child victimization rates and domestic violence rates are also declining. Remarkable, really. 

What are some of the reasons for the decline?

Moving the drug and vice trades off the streets and onto cells phones and the internet probably explain some of the variance. Why risk internecine violent conflict over territory on the streets when you can conduct business more safely and effectively on the phone and internet?

This might give us pause to legalize pot as well…..marijuana trade violence from Mexico would nose dive and produce much-needed tax revenue to boot.

What else has research shown?

There are auxiliary causes for the decline as well: more video care, rapid response emergency health care for gunshot victims who would have died even ten years ago, proliferation of video cam and cell phone cam surveillance nearly everywhere, etc.

What can communities do?

It would also be wise to continue to invest in those programs that can be credited in part with the precipitous decline in all violent crime rates in the US: investment in public schools, community and faith-based support systems (Big Brothers, Big Sisters, etc), after school programming, athletic and arts programs for youth,  community-based policing strategies, neighborhood watch programs, and the like. I wouldn’t discount those.

What about gun control to increase the decline?

Probably wise to consider federal regulations on high velocity semi-automatic long guns and allied multiple round cans and strips….including closing the gun show/private sale loopholes. That would address an “opportunity theory” and reckless access.  The mother of the Newtown shooter was incredibly negligent and would have lost everything she had in civil suits had she survived….and rightly so.

What is the current status of the mental health care system in America?

The largest provider of mental health services in the States now are prisons and jails. When we deinstitutionalized the mental health system, there was a gradual “criminalization” of what would otherwise have been mental health-related behavior. Nowhere else to put the truly diseased. Community health agencies, the intended system that were to carry the load, did not have the resources to address the demand successfully. Same is true for the juvenile system. The majority of inmates in jails and prisons now present with at least one mental disorder diagnosis. More than three quarters in the juvenile justice system, and most of those with more than one diagnosis. Probably should prompt us to be more thoughtful about mental health services access.

What is your view on the AR-15 s ?

While it is true that we have never had more guns in circulation than now and yet the violent crime rate has dropped (same thesis as with violent video games)…… therefore negating the guns cause crime hypothesis……. it is also true that it is legitimate to entertain whether or not the second amendment precludes gun regulation. I think not since all rights have limits, even freedom of speech. The issue regarding AR-15-like weapons has to do with the possible human damage done by someone with high access to the weapon yet relatively low intent and malice to do harm. A few squeezes of the trigger can do much more human damage much more quickly than can other weapons. As former Homeland Security director, Tom Ridge , has mentioned, anyone who has every fired one in an active war zone can’t help but question their place on American streets and in American homes. Their presence in millions forces law enforcement to assume that any response call could potentially involve such weapons……..not particularly comforting to cops or community members, frankly. My concern would be the collateral damage that very assumption among cops or neighbors does to social capital, one of the primary insulators against crime. You have a right to carry but that right ends when another’s safety is compromised, a proper balance between rights and responsibilities.

Any closing thoughts?

Final last words: In 80% of the multiple victim gun homicides, the killer obtained the gun legally. In 73% of the multiple victim gun homicides, the weapon was  a semi-automatic hand or long gun.

Postscript:

I saw this email that Ted had sent a friend of ours who is a NRA member supporting no control over assault weapons.

Here was Ted”s reponse:

“How many McVeighs have there been? How many Newtowns, Auroras, Clackamas, Columbines, Louisvilles, San Ysidros, Olivehirsts, Fairchilds, Crandons, Omahas, Jacksonvilles, Royal Oaks, Lancasters, Fayettevilles ?”

It seems to me:

That, if indeed, 73% of multiple murders involve automatic guns, that we should be looking for a deeper  legislative control on the fast assault weapons.