Possible Solutions to Murder in Milwaukee
Should it be treated as health epidemic? And why are shootings now more lethal?
Last week’s article on homicides in Milwaukee elicited considerable interest and some thoughtful responses. The column was based almost entirely on the wealth of data from the most recent annual report by the Milwaukee Homicide Commission on homicides and non-fatal shootings. How does Milwaukee fit into the broader picture nationally and in Wisconsin?
Gun deaths have plummeted in the United States since the early 1990’s as shown in the graph below. There is no overall consensus as to the causes of this decline. Among the possible explanations advanced are the collapse of the crack epidemic, higher rates of incarceration, reduction in lead exposure, the aging of the baby boom generation, more police, and the legalization of abortion (leading to fewer unwanted children).
The Pew Research Center lists some of the possible causes, concluding that “there is no consensus among those who study the issue as to why it happened.” A paper by the economist Steven Levitt lists 10 possible causes and rejects six of them.
The Pew report also notes the public is not aware of this decline. Far more people wrongly believe violent crime has risen.
A survey done every two years by the University of Chicago finds that gun ownership has declined. It also found that interest in hunting has declined. Since the number of guns has steadily increased, this would suggest that fewer people have more guns.
The lack of agreement on the reasons for the dramatic decline of homicides—and other violent crimes—in the 1990s raises concern that murders could increase and the reasons could be equally unclear. Milwaukee is not alone in reporting an uptick in murders. Chicago has recently been notable for its violence. The chart below summarizes data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association showing a 9 percent increase between the the 2015 and 2016 first quarters in murders. This uptick contributes to concern that the decline in crime may be reversing. (Milwaukee shows a slight decline in the rate so far this year.)
Among the states, Wisconsin historically has been at the low end of the murder rate. The next graph shows the Wisconsin murder rate since 2001 based on the FBI crime statistics. The rate since the legalization of concealed carry, shown in red, shows a slight uptick, but well within historical values. This result doesn’t support the prediction made by some advocates that allowing guns to be concealed would reduce crime. By the same token, it’s hard to argue that the small jump in rates post-law was caused by the change in the law, since they are well within the historical range. But the restrictions the law places on the collection of information makes it difficult to fully measure the impact of concealed carry.
Of Milwaukee’s three major ethnic groups—blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites—blacks have been hit far more heavily by the recent spurt in homicides. The chart below shows the homicide rate per 100,000 people for the three groups.
Between 2014 and 2015, the rate for African Americans jumped from 28 to 53. This reflects a nearly doubling of the number of people killed, from 66 to 122. This compares to a rate of 12 for Hispanics and 4 for whites.
What explains the sudden jump in African American murder victims? One way of looking at it is as a combination of two things: a steady rise in the shooting of African Americans and a sudden jump in the lethality of those shootings.
The next chart illustrates the total rate of shootings—fatal and non-fatal–for members of the same three groups since 2010. During this period African Americans were much more likely to be victims of shootings at the start and their rate steadily increased from year to year.
The dotted line is the trend line during this period. The coefficient of determination of almost 95 percent means that 95 percent of the variation in the annual rate is explained merely by the passage of time.
In short, the increase in the total shootings of blacks isn’t a surprise by historical standards. The surprise, as the next graph shows, is the spike in deaths from those shootings; the lethality of those shootings rose from 12 percent to 18 percent.
Without further information, it is hard to determine the cause of this increase in lethality. It could reflect just random variation. Alternatively, it might reflect the motivation for the shootings. For example, it seems plausible that if there are gunshots during a robbery, the participants may scatter; if however the motivation is revenge there may be a more of a motivation to stick around to finish the job.
One of the most promising approaches to reducing gun deaths is to treat them as a public health epidemic, much like the successful campaigns against various diseases. Doing so would have several advantages. For one, it would concentrate on finding solutions rather than the recent tendency by politicians and others to scapegoat.
Take the analogy of a disease that is spread by drinking polluted water. Doctors and hospitals may be able to treat the sick patient but they are usually not equipped to stop the spread of the disease. That depends on identifying the vectors that cause the spread and figuring out an effective way to interrupt these pathways.
When it comes to violent crime, police play a role analogous to doctors and hospitals when treating disease. The doctors and hospitals treat the patients who have contracted the virus; they are not equipped to drain the swamps where the mosquitos who spread the virus breed. Similarly police are trained to react to crimes and identify the suspects. However, to attack the police for not changing the conditions that cause young men to commit crime is unproductive scapegoating.