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.

In this environment lacking so many elements found in civil society elsewhere, an oppositional culture, that of "the street," whose norms are often consciously opposed to those of mainstream society, has filled the vacuum. Compounding the situation is the ready access to guns.

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.

Many black males, by the time they reach post-adolescence, have had some contact with the criminal justice system, through "misbehavior" in school or assault or petty crime, and they have acquired some kind of record, the result being, in effect, the criminalization of inner city childhood. Moreover, the inner-city youth culture strongly encourages drug experimentation. By the time they apply for a job, young men are often disqualified from low-income service jobs by background checks that include a police check and a urine test. Rejected for employment, they are left without money or resources and have even more limited possibilities. Too often, they resort to the underground economy of hustling, drugs and street crime.

Despite a real scarcity of economic resources in the inner-city poor community, to make ends meet, people engage in numerous everyday exchanges - bartering, lending, as well as illegal enterprises such as the drug trade. These are performed without the benefit of civil law.

Strikingly, there is a profound lack of faith in the police and the criminal justice system. The policing mechanism that thus most often matters is street justice, essentially an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If someone takes advantage of you, you must get even. Not to be even is to be vulnerable to further advances. When debts are made, they must be repaid. No one must be allowed to get away with anything.

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:

  • Some people are criminals.
  • The criminal culture wants guns.
  • Guns are sold legally to law abiding citizens.
  • Criminals get hold of them by breaking the law, no matter how many laws are passed.
  • Therefore, the law abiding must be disarmed to stop criminals from getting guns.
  • 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.

    Youths in the year 1950 had "easy access" to guns, but they committed virtually no gun crimes. Youths in 2000 face vastly more legal restrictions, and commit vastly more armed crimes. Fixating on today's imaginary "easy access" to guns is a deadly distraction from serious thought about genuine social changes that have resulted in so many more young criminals than half a century ago.

    We can't even begin to answer the challenging questions about social decay over the last 50 years if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the dystopian fantasies of the gun prohibition lobby.

    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.

    But despite various theft-deterrent strategies that people use religiously to protect their wallets, purses and backpacks, their iPods do not seem a major concern.

    "I definitely notice where I put my wallet," said Brian Kneafsey, 34, who was walking through the Times Square subway station listening to Radiohead. "I have less options with the iPod. It has to go in my ears."

    But a recent spike in subway felonies, reported Tuesday by the New York Daily News, has been driven by an increase in iPod thefts, police said. As of April 27, there had been 304 robberies in the transit system citywide this year, up 24 percent from the same period last year, the police said. Grand larcenies are up 10 percent, with 462 so far this year. Overall, transit crimes are up 16 percent.

    It is impossible to say how many of those robberies were iPod thefts, but they were a major factor, the police said.

    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:

    "Guns aren't an issue," he said. "If Philadelphia wants gun control, fine. If Alabama doesn't, also fine."
    Is that considered a stand on the issues?

    posted by Eric on 04.10.05 at 10:29 AM


    I keep coming back and re-reading this post.

    I want to comment on this prof's idea that someone gangbangers come about because of BigBadSociety and thus absolving them of any personal responsibility for their own criminality..but each time I start I end up ranting.

    I guess I just need a bit more time.

    But this post is great for raising my heartrate without ever getting near the treadmill!!


    Darleen   ·  April 11, 2005 3:40 PM

    Gee, Darleen, I'm glad you found the post exciting, but I didn't intend for it to be THAT exciting! I don't want to endanger favorite readers.


    Eric Scheie   ·  April 11, 2005 7:23 PM

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