Harvard Researcher Right About Reducing Violence, Wrong About Republicans

Democrats are stuck talking about gun control when they should be promoting and expounding on proven strategies that actually reduce violence, or so says Harvard researcher Thomas Abt in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. While I disagree with the partisan framing Abt brings to the issue, he’s absolutely right about one thing:


the candidates are still failing to focus on what is simultaneously the most serious and most solvable form of such violence: shootings and killings on the streets of our cities.

If you listen to any of the Democrats running for office, they’ll tell you we need gun licensing, registration, mandatory background checks, gun bans, red flag laws, one-gun-a-month laws, and more. What they won’t tell you, in fact, what they can’t tell you, is how any of those laws would actually prevent criminals from illegally obtaining guns. These laws are all aimed at legal gun owners, and the goal is to reduce the number of legal gun owners in the hopes of some trickle-down effect taking place among criminals as well. The gun control advocates and anti-gun politicians don’t like guns, so their first (and usually only) instinct is to consider a solution that’s dependent on reducing the supply of firearms.

Abt notes that there’s a different way to go about it- reducing the demand for firearms instead. Not among the general population, not among law-abiding Americans, but among the small number of young men in a few neighborhoods in any given city who are the drivers of violent crime (I mentioned this recently in a piece about Chicago’s mayor).

In most medium to large cities, violent crime clusters among a few hundred individuals and a few dozen micro-locations known as “hot spots.” Less than 1 percent of a city’s population and less than 5 percent of its geography will generate the majority of its lethal or near-lethal encounters.

Next, strategies that balance punishment with support work better than either approach in isolation. No city has reduced violence only with law enforcement, or reduced it without law enforcement entirely. In a comprehensive review of over 1,400 anti-crime evaluations, my colleague Christopher Winship and I discovered that the evidence does not favor either “tough” or “soft” approaches; there are numerous examples of both that have worked.


In order to be truly effective at stopping these young men from shooting, you need both carrots and sticks. As David Kennedy, one of the pioneers of the Ceasefire model, said in his book “Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, the message to these gang members is simple:  We’ll help you if you let us. We’ll stop you if you don’t.

When cops and community activists can stand side by side with one another and present that message in a unified front to gang members, it generally causes some of them to listen. When it’s backed up by tough prosecutions, generally at the federal level, of gang members who don’t get the message, a lot more of them listen. And when they help to turn your life around, to get your GED, to not spend your days planning a shooting or trying to figure out how not to get shot, when that help is real too, then many of these young men won’t just listen, they’ll act.

As I said, I don’t agree with Abt making this about Democrats versus Republicans. I’m also actually really disappointed that Abt, who recognizes that these laws aren’t effective, still supports them.

Despite the urgency of the problem and the availability of solutions, proven approaches to reduce urban violence still suffer from a lack of attention and support. Democrats are partly responsible when they support the same gun violence policies that have been around for decades, such as universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Although these strategies make good sense, they do little to curb the violence on the streets of our cities.


If they do little to curb violence, if they are difficult if not impossible to enforce, if they’re used disproportionally against young men of color, and if they cause politicians to ignore strategies that are actually successful, then how do these gun control laws “make good sense?” I wish Abt would have gone all-in and told these candidates that they’re barking up the wrong tree, not that they can bark up two different trunks. Then again, the Harvard researcher seems to let his partisanship cloud his ability to talk to the entire political spectrum about the strategy to focus on the most violent offenders.

Saving lives in urban America is everyone’s responsibility, but unfortunately some Republicans, led by President Trump, demagogue the issue, using race-based fears of crime to divide Americans. Responsible solutions, for the time being, will have to come from the other side of the aisle. Democrats should say “We have a plan for that” when it comes to urban violence.

This drives me bonkers. Again, I’m a conservative gun owner who really likes this strategy. I’ve bought in, based on the research that I’ve done over the years into how it’s successfully reduced violent crime and rejuvenated neighborhoods across the country. And yet Abt doesn’t even want to talk to me or others on the Right about this strategy. That’s a huge mistake, in my opinion.


There’s no reason why a Republican can’t support this tactic. In fact, as a conservative gun owner, I embrace it wholeheartedly. It makes a heckuva lot more sense than pushing another gun control law that won’t have any real impact. It doesn’t impact the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. It’s cost-effective. It doesn’t require any new punitive laws.

If Thomas Abt were to approach Republicans and conservatives with the open-mindedness he hopes Democrats will show him, he might be surprised by the support he’d get, particularly among gun owners excited to see a tactic that can really make bad neighborhoods better and doesn’t involve attacking legal gun ownership or the 2nd Amendment. My advice: don’t put all your eggs in one partisan basket. If saving lives in urban America is everyone’s responsibility, don’t reject one political party or one side of the political spectrum, especially when you’re complaining that the side you’ve been talking to is ignoring your ideas.

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