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Commentary: More guns won't make city residents safer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2008 - With homicides in the city of St. Louis running 44 percent higher through October of this year compared with the same period in 2007, Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe's proposal this week for residents to arm themselves is understandable - but it won't help. And more guns in communities already hard hit by firearm violence could make conditions worse.

The typical homicide in St. Louis and every other large city in the country involves a dispute between two or more young men with lengthy criminal records and carrying firearms. The last thing the community needs is to make it even easier for young criminals to acquire guns. But Troupe's call to arms would do just that.

Research has shown that communities in which more households own firearms have higher rates of gun suicides, accidents and homicides than those in which guns are less prevalent. The guns must come from somewhere and home burglaries are an important source of the weapons young thugs use on the street.

Assuming the St. Louis area is typical of the nation, about a million and-a-half firearms are in private hands right now. We are already awash in guns. Adding more to the mix is hardly a recipe for safety.

The idea that arming citizens will reduce violent crime was given a boost several years ago by John Lott in a book with the provocative title "More Guns, Less Crime." Lott claimed that criminals avoid attacking victims they think are carrying firearms. As evidence, he argued that states permitting citizens to carry concealed firearms, other things equal, have lower rates of violent crime than those restricting the right to carry.

Independent researchers who have analyzed Lott's argument and data, including a National Academy of Sciences expert panel, have been unable to reproduce his results. The available research evidence does not support Troupe's belief in the curative powers of a heavily armed citizenry.

What then are citizens to do about rising levels of firearm violence?

They should demand more effective responses from the police, especially as the economic downturn deepens and more young men conclude they have little to lose by turning to crime. On this score, the research is promising. Programs such as Boston's Ceasefire initiative, which helped to reduce gang violence during the 1990s, can be replicated in St. Louis without adding more police officers.

So-called hot spots enforcement strategies, which target areas of extreme violence, also have proven effective in reducing violent crime without displacing it to other areas. The rise in homicides over the past year is concentrated in a handful of St. Louis neighborhoods. Careful tracking of where the violence is occurring and saturated patrols in those areas can make a difference.

Recent headlines have featured innocent and apparently unarmed citizens wantonly killed by strangers. Although such incidents are quite rare, they understandably produce anger, frustration, fear, and misplaced support for Troupe's proposal that people protect themselves by any means necessary.

The new St. Louis police chief is well aware of the research on what works in policing firearm violence. He should take Troupe's proposal as a warning that if the police do not respond immediately and effectively to the upturn in violence, the streets will become even more dangerous for residents and police alike.

Richard Rosenfeld is professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He served on the National Academy of Sciences panel on firearms and violence.