April 10, 2005
On criminalizing "access"
A college professor named Elijah Anderson has identified what he calls "the code of the street," which he identifies closely with urban crime:
The factors that give rise to inner-city street crime and violence are many and complex, but spring mainly from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor. Among them are the lack of jobs that pay a living wage and the stigma of race; an ad hoc financial system borne of the lack of economic resources, combined with the fallout of drug trafficking and rampant drug use; lack of faith in police "protection" or fair treatment by the criminal justice system; and the resulting alienation and lack of hope for the future. Essentially, many community residents believe there are two different systems of law, one for black people and one for whites.The code of the street means involvement in crime at an early age (this is called "the criminalization of inner city childhood"), being very quick to take offense at the slightest perceived act of disrespect, and always getting even:
Large numbers of African Americans live in racialized poverty and second-class citizenship. The extent to which this is true in some objective sense is less important than that it is what so many black people believe. Black people live in areas of concentrated urban poverty to which the wider system has abdicated its responsibility, or so many residents believe. Even if this is not objectively true, there is enough evidence for many of them to be convinced.Whenever I see expressions like "large numbers" my antennae go up. But let's take the author at his word and assume for the sake of argument that there is a large criminal culture in the inner cities. Does it follow from this premise that the problem -- "as of 7 p.m. yesterday, 95 people had been killed in Philadelphia in 2005, a large proportion of them in impoverished neighborhoods" -- results from "easy access to guns"?
First of all, what is "easy access"? The author defines it this way:
On Saturdays, the gun sellers roam the inner-city neighborhoods, selling guns out of the trunks of their cars to anyone with the money. At night, in some of the most disenfranchised neighborhoods, random gunshots are heard as children try out their guns.OK, he's already defined these neighborhoods as high-crime, and dominated by a culture of complete lack of respect for the law. Drugs are sold openly despite their being highly illegal. A plethora of federal, state and local laws prohibit selling guns "out of the trunks of cars" to "anyone with the money." (I don't know how many laws there are, but trust me, it's a huge number.)
So, what the author is saying is that illegal gun sales are occurring in high crime neighborhoods. Is it helpful to define the problem as "easy access"? What, precisely, does that mean? Somehow, I don't think he's advocating a crackdown on illegal gun sales from trunks of cars. Nor is he advocating making it illegal for criminals to get guns, as there have been severe laws for years doing precisely that. Rather, in defining the problem as "easy access," he's using code language for prohibiting access to guns to the law abiding.
I'll spell out the logic of Professor Anderson's argument:
I can think of no other way to interpret the phrase "easy access." Even more chillingly, the author might even be equating "access" with the number of guns available to be stolen.
As Dave Kopel has pointed out, however, Americans used to have much easier legal access to guns, with fewer problems:
Although legal controls on firearms for adults and juveniles have increased significantly in the last thirty-five years, so has the number of guns. Gun density could be said to make guns more available to juveniles, in that more guns owned means more guns available to be stolen. Yet more guns available to be stolen surreptitiously by juveniles does not seem like a net increase in "easy access" compared with the pre-1968 ability of juveniles in most states to buy guns in gun stores.Clearly, guns are a target of criminals, because the laws have made it harder for criminals to get guns through legal means.
Obviously, guns are a more frequent target of crime than ever before. But does it make sense to criminalize the things that are attractive targets for criminals?
I'm sure there's a serious problem with the fencing of stolen goods. We might as well criminalize all attractive property so that it can't be stolen and sold by criminals "out of trunks of their cars to anyone with the money." (And what if the trunks themselves are located in stolen cars? Shouldn't "access" to stealable cars be cut off?)
I'm not even sure that "access" is the right word here because it isn't defined.
Might that be the whole idea?
NOTE: Professor Anderson has written a book called The Code of the Street, which David Adesnik reviewed here.
MORE: If "access" to crime turns you on, by all means check out this econo-criminal analysis of iPod theft:
It would be hard to conceive of a better criminal target than the iPod. Those white cords snaking down from listeners' ears into the recesses of their jackets signify an instant status symbol, hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise and a mark who may be blissfully unaware of his or her surroundings.I think it's high time we limited easy access to iPods!
[According to Geek News, iPods are a growing security risk anyway. Clearly, there are too many of these evil things floating around.....]
UPDATE (04/11/05): According to Howard Dean, Philadelphia gun control is not an issue:
Is that considered a stand on the issues?
posted by Eric on 04.10.05 at 10:29 AM
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