An Adam Gopnik New Yorker piece, "The Simple Truth About Gun Control," is speeding its way through social media right now, at least among gun control proponents and their friends. Its premise, based on evidence from other countries, is this: gun control is an effective deterrent against killing sprees. Ross Douthat at the New York Times counters by comparing Gopnik's prescription to Prohibition.
The question of gun control and the Second Amendment aside, I wonder whether the following from Gopnik's piece generally rings true among those of us who are prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers:
As I wrote last January, the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one. This is the key concept of Franklin Zimring’s amazing work on crime in New York; everyone said that, given the social pressures, the slum pathologies, the profits to be made in drug dealing, the ascending levels of despair, that there was no hope of changing the ever-growing cycle of violence. The right wing insisted that this generation of predators would give way to a new generation of super-predators.
What the New York Police Department found out, through empirical experience and better organization, was that making crime even a little bit harder made it much, much rarer. This is undeniably true of property crime, and common sense and evidence tells you that this is also true even of crimes committed by crazy people (to use the plain English the subject deserves). Those who hold themselves together enough to be capable of killing anyone are subject to the same rules of opportunity as sane people. Even madmen need opportunities to display their madness, and behave in different ways depending on the possibilities at hand. Demand an extraordinary degree of determination and organization from someone intent on committing a violent act, and the odds that the violent act will take place are radically reduced, in many cases to zero.
One can only hope that the public policy debate on what to do in the aftermath of Sandy Hook proceeds with attention and a critical eye to relevant data and research. From the gun control opposition side Eugene Volokh at Volokh Conspiracy may soon get around to taking on Gopnik's piece directly if he carries through with his promise in "Why Not Just Make Guns Slightly Harder for the Bad Guys to Get?" Meanwhile, on the subject of crime and opportunism, Judge Richard Posner has just issued what Volokh calls a "very interesting concurring opinion" addressing the costs of long prison sentences. The defendant in the case was convicted of a predatory sex crime; Posner observes "It is true that sex offenders are more likely to recidivate than other criminals, ... because their criminal behavior is for the most part compulsive rather than opportunistic." Like the Gopnik piece and the Volokh post, the whole opinion is worth a read. Download it here.