With the unthinkable tragedy that has taken place in Connecticut, it has become fashionable to once again to look towards some form of national gun control legislation as a partial solution to what is portrayed as an epidemic of violence. The United States has been down this road all too often in its brief history, and it is normal and proper that these events shock the public conscience into some sort of action.
As the nation's leaders grope for policy solutions to what, at its base, is a moral issue, it makes sense to take a hard look at the statistics in order to determine which policy solutions would be the most effective.
Portland, Oregon may be one of the most peaceful places on the planet. This may or may not be true all of its inhabitants, but the assumption may prove useful with regards to the city's relatively low police force to citizen ratio.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the ideal Full time Police Officer ratio for a city the size of Portland is 2.5 for every 1,000 residents. Portland’s current force is roughly 940 for a population of 593,820, which is a ratio of roughly 1.58 officers for every 1,000 residents, or one officer for every 631 residents.
For perspective, this ratio same is claimed to be closer to five officers per 1,000 in New York and Los Angeles. On the other side of the spectrum, the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, which would be a modern day depiction of the wild west, the ratio is closer to one police officer per 1,000 residents.
To see if increased police protection is synonymous with lower homicide rates, we’ve compiled some rough data which maps homicide rates in major cities against their police to citizen ratio. To the right you can see a rough graph of this data set.
In addition to the cities above, we've included London, England, which has combined both stringent gun control with a larger than average police force.
It is interesting to note that, while New York and Los Angeles have the highest police force to citizen ratio in our sample, they also have the highest homicide rates. As such, it is difficult to tell if a larger police force is the key to controlling urban homicides or if a larger police force is a reaction to a high homicide rate.
However, it is interesting to note that, based on the London data, it appears that gun control combined with an increased police presence may be effective in controlling homicides. However, this theory is seriously impaired when a city like Chicago or Washington, DC, places where some of the toughest gun control laws in the United States, are considered.
As long as human beings are imperfect, unpredictable violence is likely to remain a part of the social landscape. While it is even more shocking when it occurs in low crime areas, it should be clear that unpredictable violence is just that, unpredictable. As such, policy remedies, which depend largely upon human action taking place in a predictable fashion, are destined to be imperfect as well.
Even so, if gun control is at least somewhat effective as a means to lower homicide rates, why are some people so passionate about the second amendment? To explain why the right to bear arms is integral to the operation of any free society, we turn to the 1991 congressional testimony of Dr. Suzanna Gratia-Hupp, who is a survivor of the 1991 Luby’s massacre and leading advocate of the individual’s right to carry a concealed weapon. In her famous closing words she articulately states that the second amendment "wasn’t meant to protect our right to hunt ducks, it was meant to give us a means to protect ourselves from y’all (the government)”
Is it right to categorically deny a population of nearly 400 million persons the right to defend themselves in exchange for moderately lower urban homicide rates? Second amendment advocates and the peoples of the former Soviet Union, Turkey, and Cambodia, who were systematically exterminated after surrendering such a right, would say no.
On the other hand, peace loving individuals who live in dense, urban populations may have a different opinion, where ideological battles such as the right to bear arms are meaningless if the constant threat of urban crime and turf wars are too close for comfort.
Whatever the choice, it can only be made at the individual level, there is no policy prescription, save the too often ignored 5th commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Perhaps rather than attempting to control anything, a greater respect for human life and a striving to live by the golden rule should be espoused by all. This may be the only thing that everyone involved can truly live with.
Until then, may the victims of this most recent of tragedies rest in peace, and may we be shocked into willfully renouncing all forms of violence against one another, for in this simple action lies our only hope for enduring peace and security.