Monday, August 27, 2018

Report: Violent crime wave of '80s and '90s spured by cheap guns

The violent crime wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s is a subject of perennial debate among policymakers and social scientists: what caused the spike in America’s murder rate, which by 1993 soared to the highest level ever recorded? And just as important, why did it subside?
One popular theory attributes both the surge and ebb of homicides to crack cocaine. The logic is persuasive. In poor urban areas hollowed out by deindustrialization and cut off from economic opportunity by racial discrimination, the drug provided one of few lucrative incomes for young black men. Dealers resorted to bloodshed to defend their businesses, while users turned to crime to feed their addictions. Then came the “war on crime” and go-go economy of the Clinton years, which dried up the crack trade and reduced murders along with it.
According to The Trace, two new academic papers posit that drug market dynamics alone don’t fully explain why the explosion of crack use was so deadly, nor why murders fell in the mid-90s. Instead, they argue, a boom in handgun production and possession gave the crack years their fatal character — until new restrictions on firearms reversed the trendlines.  
“What’s striking about the gun market is you get these surges in production,” said Geoffrey Williams, an economist at Transylvania University in Kentucky who has been researching the phenomena for the past three years. “The production booms were followed by surges in killings.”
In a working paper updated in August, Geoffrey Williams and his colleague W. Alan Bartley argued that it was a “supply shock” of low-priced pistols which in the 1980s and early ‘90s led to higher levels of gun homicide among young black men. During those years, ATF oversight of the gun industry slacked off and a group of Los Angeles-based manufacturers known as the “Ring of Fire” expanded the market for “Saturday Night Specials”: bottom-of-the-barrel firearms that turned up at crime scenes as surely as weekends beget drunken disputes.
Culling advertisements in back issues of the magazine Gun Digest, Williams and Bartley compiled handgun price and production data for the period. They calculate that the production of cheap guns priced at $100 or less peaked in 1993, the same year murders, both those committed with guns or other means, reached their highest point. That year, Washington, D.C., had a murder rate of 75 per 100,000 residents. The industrial hub of Gary, Indiana, led the country at a rate of 110 per 100,000 residents. Today, very few cities even approach those levels of violent death.
The huge pool of cheap guns contracted sharply as the 1990s wore on. Manufacturers of cut-rate handguns were driven out of business by product liability lawsuits (their guns tended to injure users, too). The federal government doubled ATF law enforcement funding, from just over $2 billion in 1990 to more than $4 billion by 1994. The then-nascent Brady background check system, which allowed gun dealers to instantly check whether a purchaser was prohibited from owning a gun, reduced the ability of gun purchasers with felony histories or other disqualifying behavior to buy firearms.
Could a new influx of guns also explain the latest spike?  
Some experts think so. According to the ATF, domestic gun production reached an all-time peak of 11 million weapons in 2016, fueled by the easing of local carry laws and inflated fears of new federal gun control. The single largest share of those weapons were semiautomatic handguns. The pistols flooding the market today are typically of higher quality, fire more powerful rounds, and have ammunition magazines with greater capacity than those made by the Ring of Fire companies.   
At the same time, the recent homicide increase has been most acute in some of the same cities that had been ravaged by the introduction of crack three decades earlier, including Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis.
“There’s nothing controversial about saying that means influence injuries,” said Dr. Sandro Galea of the Boston University School of Public Health. “Take the likelihood of people committing suicide by jumping off bridges. Studies show that when you make it harder to jump off a bridge, fewer people commit suicide that way. The supply of guns is an integral part of that same story: the widespread availability of a means of injury results in a greater amount of that kind of injury.”
As Galea sees it, the big difference between the rise in gun crime during the 1980s and ‘90s and the spikes in gun production and homicide we’ve just seen is that the earlier wave was followed by a dramatic federal policy response.
There is no such equivalent effort today.
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