October 1, 2014

Violence in America: The Wider Conversation

Eugene Steuerle, an Institute fellow and the Richard B. Fisher Chair at the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Steuerle is also a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury.

Violence in America: The Wider Conversation

By Eugene Steuerle

In the aftermath of Newtown and, by one estimate, 25 mass shootings since 2006, the country is engaged in an intense fight over assault-like weapons and the right of Americans to carry them. While I consider it downright stupid and outright dangerous to allow people to buy, sell, and carry around the equivalent of small machine guns—imagine how safe you would feel if all your loony neighbors touted one around—I wish we were engaged in a much wider and thoughtful discussion over violence in America and how to reduce it.

By almost all measures, not just mass shootings, our murder rate is among the highest for so-called developed nations. We also put a lot of people in jail; regardless of how much or how little prison deters repeat offenders, that’s not the mark of a peaceful society. My fear in the current debate is that our focus has become so narrow that even the best congressional bill will only modestly reduce the violence around us.

Thoughtful discussions can occur. At a recent Urban Institute conference, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier enraptured the audience with her command over homicide and other crime statistics, her understanding of what community qualities lower crime, and her constant effort to prevent, not simply solve, crime by engaging police on the ground, social welfare agencies, and others in preemptive efforts.

When we have these types of discussions, it becomes clear that there is no one solution to violence because there’s no one simple cause. Smart police work, early intervention in violent households, neighborhood integration, family counseling, safer gun triggers, mental health efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that vicious cycles become replaced by virtuous cycles, where one positive step multiplies upward the gains from other positive steps.

But, once again, we’ve managed to turn an opportunity to confront broad issues of how to build a better—in this case, safer—society into a narrow political battle where victory will be defined mainly by whether the National Rifle Association gets its way. Advancing societies like ours should aspire higher.

Reprinted with permission from The Government We Deserve, a periodic column on public policy by Eugene Steuerle, an Institute fellow and the Richard B. Fisher Chair at the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Steuerle is also a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury. The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its sponsors.

Note to Editors: Publication of this column is encouraged and permission is hereby granted, provided that the author is properly cited. To link to the blog positing or make comments, visit http://blog.governmentwedeserve.org/category/shorts/.

 

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