Monday, January 19, 2004

Hacking at the Roots of Violence


From The Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 2, 1993
Some Ways U.S. Can Tug at the Roots of Violence
by: Patrick Burns

For two decades, the National Rifle Association has argued that "guns don't kill - people do." Now, a major new study by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the NRA may be right, even if its proposed solution - longer jail terms - is fundamentally flawed.

The National Academy of Science report, "Understanding and Preventing Violence," notes that five out of every six guns used in crime are obtained illegally. In other words, more restrictions on legal gun ownership are unlikely to substantially change the violence equation.

If gun control is not a panacea for violent crime, the "silver bullet" of longer jail sentences is not much better. The academy notes that despite a 300% increase in average times spent in prison by inmates since 1975, there has been no significant decline in violent crime as a consequence.

But if neither gun control nor long-term mass incarceration are "quick fixes" to violent crime, what does work? The academy suggests solutions based on intervention rather than legislation. Among them:

4Intervene to disrupt illegal gun markets, where so many of the weapons used in violent crime are bought and sold.

A comprehensive program of buy-and-bust and sell-and-bust arrests, which have been shown to have little impact on street drug markets, could have a real effect on reducing violence by crippling illegal street gun markets. Because the act of buying a gun is not driven by the kind of physical dependence common to addiction, buy-and-bust and sell-and-bust techniques are likely to be particularly effective in combating illegal gun sales.

4Intervene in street drug markets whose instability and anonymity breed much of today's urban violence.

Local police need to embrace law-enforcement techniques specifically designed to cripple the mechanics of street drug sales. Research by the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities suggests that these techniques should include the seizure of autos used by customers coming into street drug markets, and the creation of police and citizen patrols to reclaim marketing space for the law-abiding community. The goal should not be to get rid of all drug use (an impossible task), but to drive drug sales back indoors where it used to take place and where violence between parties was once relatively rare.

4 Identification of, and intervention within, troubled families where so much violence against women and children occurs.

Particularly promising is a national "home visit" program such as the one that exists in Britain. Home visits would help identify troubled households and would also serve to provide case-appropriate advice on health, child care, and social services to families that need them. One way to fund such an effort is to make it part of the national service program advocated by President-elect Bill Clinton.

4Intervention to change the cues we send and receive about the propriety of alcohol intoxication.

Alcohol is a factor in more than 50% of all acts of violence and, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is more likely to be involved in murder and manslaughter than a handgun. Yet the harms caused by alcohol intoxication remain largely ignored in the current debates about violence. What is needed here, the academy suggests, is a national campaign, similar to that used against drunken driving, whose focus is the stigmatization of alcohol intoxication. The message of such a campaign would be more than "don't drive drunk"; it would be "don't get drunk."

Hospital emergency rooms, where so much violence comes home to roost, are natural sites for intervention. Studies have shown that abused women are routinely underidentified in hospital emergency departments, even though battery is the most common cause of injury among women seeking emergency room care. And though 30% of all emergency room trauma involves alcohol, emergency room doctors and staff rarely steer the injured to alcohol counseling, evaluation or treatment.

There are no "silver bullets" solutions to the problems of violence in America, but there are things that can be done to change the propensity people have for harming themselves and others. The fact that these solutions lean more toward intervention than legislation should not dissuade us. With more than 6 million acts of violence reported in the United States every year, we cannot afford to spend another 20 years debating solutions that social scientists tell us are unlikely to produce substantive results.

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