Do guns cause illiteracy too?

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer has a big front page story on the city's upcoming mayoral election, and all candidates seem to agree that the number one issue is crime, that crime is caused by guns, and that the solution is to allow Philadelphia to have local gun control:

Philadelphia's mayoral candidates concur: Reducing crime is priority one. The soaring homicide rate demands it.

Though the five men vying for the Democratic nomination May 15 share some strategies against epidemic violence, they differ in significant details.

Broadly, they want more police - 500 to 1,000 new hires. They want to target "hot spots" with intensive patrols; invest in "21st-century" video surveillance and acoustic gunshot locators; spur faith-based, anticrime initiatives; and amend state law so the city of Philadelphia can enact stricter ordinances against illegal guns.

(Emphasis added.)

Most daily readers of the paper probably agree that the homicide rate is all there is to it, because for more than a year now, the Inquirer has been featuring this daily murder counter:

deadlytoll.jpgNamed "A City'sDeadly Toll," the counter (along with the campaign it links) seems to have the primary goal of convincing people not only that Philadelphia is very unsafe, but that everyone is at risk of being killed by "gun violence."

Thus it seems to be a no-brainer that crime equals homicide equals gun violence, and that it's Philadelphia's number one issue.

At the risk of sounding like a contrarian, I'd like to question whether the murder rate is in fact the number one quality of life issue. The vast majority of killings involve people with criminals killing other criminals they already knew. While any murder is horrible, and I think it's a terrible distortion (as I've argued many times) to focus on the instrumentality of the murder, instead of the murderer himself, I think it does the city an injustice to focus on homicide as if that's the only type of crime voters worry about. Whether it is or not, I don't know.

Should it be? Let's look at the statistics. According to the "FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program as reported in HUD's State of the Cities Data Systems," Philadelphia's murder rate (per 100,000) Philadelphia ranks 14th out of 98 cities.

Philadelphia's rape rate is considerably lower -- 82nd out of 97

The robbery rate is 9th, and Philadelphia (at 253.8) has fewer robberies per 100,000 than the following cities:

Chicago, IL 491.3
Memphis, TN--AR--MS 354.7
Jersey City, NJ 328.6
Miami, FL 325.9
Houston, TX 288.8
New York, NY 273.4
Los Angeles--Long Beach, CA 266
Baltimore, MD262
There's a reason I put those statistics up there. Cynic though I am, I have to say that I have been so influenced by the daily murder counter that I didn't know until this morning that I was more likely to be robbed in New York or Los Angeles than in Philadelphia.

As to assault, Philadelphia ranks 46th. Once again, New York and LA are more violent places. (As of course is gun free Chicago.)

And while you don't need a gun to commit larceny, Philadelphia's larceny rate is 79th out of 98.

I'm not sure how they're defining larceny, but I suspect most of it involves shoplifting and not burglary, and I think the latter would tend to me more of a quality of life issue for ordinary people than the former. At any rate, Philadelphia's burglary rate is 83 out of 98. And it's auto theft rate is 54th.

In the category of robbery with a gun, Philadelphia is bad -- 10th out of 98. The "assault with a gun" ranking is 27, although I would think that the latter would be subsumed in the robbery with a gun category, as pointing a gun at someone during a robbery is also an assault with a gun.

There's no question that Philadelphia has a major crime problem, but looking at the overall picture, the city is in many ways a lot safer than other cities.

But I'm struck by the complete lack of evidence that guns worsen Philadelphia's quality of life in any substantial way. While it's always tough to measure the effect of guns in deterring crime, the statistics made me wonder whether guns might make actually make crime safer.

There's actually a social science study -- titled "The Effect of Gun Availability on Violent Crime Patterns, 455 ANNALS 63 (1981)" -- which touches on that very subject:

reducing access to guns will also cause crimes to be committed against more vulnerable victims, those who cannot fight back. Id. Cook concludes that reducing gun availability will increase the robbery injury rate, but decrease the number of murders. Id. at 76. The reasoning is that more victims will resist if the criminal is unarmed, and will suffer injury in the process.
This would tend to confirm that an armed society is a polite society -- even in the context of crime.

Common sense would suggest that if robbery victims were given the choice between being jumped by an unarmed thug or being held up at gunpoint, they would choose the latter. That's because the strongarm robber has to "convince" the victim that he's serious, whereas the guy with the gun is more likely to be taken seriously from the beginning of the encounter. This may sound counterintuitive, but that's mainly because so many people have been convinced that guns are the root cause of crime.

Aside from human evil, I think the leading root cause of quality of life crimes is functional illiteracy:

In an attempt to bring illiteracy to the attention of the American people, the U.S. Department of Education pointed out a decade ago that an alarming 47 million American adults were functionally or marginally illiterate. Arguably, little meaningful progress has been made in the fight to reduce illiteracy in the most affluent nation in the world.

A 2001 Newsweek article pointed out that an astonishing 47 percent of Detroit, Mich. residents, or almost one-out-of-two adults in the predominately African-American and urban city were functionally illiterate. By way of comparison, only 6.7 percent of citizens in Vietnam are functionally illiterate.

The correlation between crime and illiteracy is well known to criminologists and sociologists throughout the world. It is estimated that 60 percent of adults in federal and state prisons are functionally or marginally illiterate and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have problems associated with reading, writing and basic math.

Kids who hang out in the street and end up shooting each other aren't doing their homework because they have no homework to do.

Even anti-gun activists acknowledge that the kids apparently have nothing to do:

"We all want it to change, but how is the hard part," says Margo Davidson of the Caring People Alliance in North Philadelphia, where Andrea, Sierra, Christopher, and other teens can spend their afternoons after school. "We do the thing that we know how to do: We have a safe place for kids to come after school. We do family therapy and counseling, help people with [finding] jobs. But it's not enough. There are too many guns on the street and not enough jobs for young people."

Too many young people, says Ms. Davidson, are milling around after school with nothing to do except what the streets offer: guns and drugs.

Why is it that they have nothing to do?

I think it's because schools are not schools, but daytime holding facilities. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently featured a series of articles focusing on the violence in Philadelphia schools -- especially attacks on teachers. I'm not saying violence is unimportant (as I've said many times, if disruptive students were expelled, the rest might be able to learn), but focusing on violence in the schools reminds me of the focus on sex education (programs teaching students how to put condoms on bananas, etc.). With sex and violence getting all the attention, what's being overlooked is a complete failure of education.

Let's take West Philadelphia High -- the focus of the series on violent attacks against teachers. Of course violence against teachers is deplorable, but if teachers had the ability to discipline disruptive students at the slightest hint of trouble (and discipline means being able expel them from class), the violence rate would plummet, and the students who wanted to learn could do so. Instead, very few are learning anything at West Philadelphia High. Well, they might be learning that schools are violent holding facilities, but they are certainly not learning how to read and write.

As the following chart (from the very helpful web site) graphically illustrates, students at West Philadelphia High are for the most part functional illiterates.


By way of contrast, here's Lower Merion High School -- a suburban school just minutes away from West Philadelphia High.


I think the contrast is shocking. And it has nothing to do with the "availability of guns," as the gun laws are the same statewide.

I am sick of hearing that guns cause crime when the real problem is so glaringly obvious. In today's society, functionally illiterate people are simply dysfunctional. They are not so much unemployed as they are unemployable. There was a time when children in all schools were taught how to read and do simple math, and there's no reason why the same can't be true today.

Instead of looking at the daily murder toll, I think Philadelphians should be looking at the city's annual illiteracy toll.

We're still supposed to care about root causes, aren't we?

MORE (03/20/07): Anyone who wants to understand why inner city schools are so awful, the comment from teacher KarenT below provides some indication. But the best critique I've seen (an indictment really), is Megan McArdle's post (via Glenn Reynolds) which lays out the full scope of the problem point by point. Like these:

1) The American educational system sucks.

2) It particularly sucks for poor and minority kids

3) It has sucked in approximately the same way for at least forty years.

4) The institutional barriers to not sucking are apparently insurmountable with the current interest groups in place.

5) It is extremely segregated by class, race, and income

6) It is extremely hard to recruit and keep good teachers

7) As a result, the schools with the most attractively upper middle class parents and children get almost all of the good teachers (Emphasis added.)

There's a lot more, and the bottom line (as far as I'm concerned) is that the teachers unions stand in the way of any meaningful reform, and the only prayer of hope is in vouchers.

posted by Eric on 03.19.07 at 10:57 AM


Eric, you might find some food for thought in this book by Kay S. Hymowitz, which discusses the relative powerlessness of teachers in comparison to violent or disruptive students. , ,

"Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children As Small Adults" . . .

She makes the case that rights granted to children and teenagers under the law (including Supreme Court decisions) have undermined the ability of teachers to control their classrooms.

Her new book on Marriage and Caste might also be interesting to you. What do you want to bet that marriage is taken much more seriously by parents in the suburban school you highlight, compared to the failing school?

As a substitute teacher in an economically depressed area, I was very disturbed by the vast gulf between the lifestyles of top students (who tend to be over-scheduled, if anything) and other students, who seem to truly be unable to think of anything constructive to do with their time, once they get past the earliest school years. And they have no vision of why it might be important for them to actually learn something in school. They do, indeed, view school as a "holding facility", though it also offers opportunities to socialize with friends.

The top students, almost without exception, come from stable home environments. Most of their parents are married. Where there has been a divorce, both parents are still involved with the children. This is not true of problem students with non-immigrant parents.

Sadly, many of the problem kids come from stable immigrant homes where parental authority is undermined by their inability to speak English. This puts the children in a more authoritative position in the family. Relationships with the larger community are almost exclusively through the English-speaking children.

Activists trained in Ethnic Studies programs in college agitate against the adoption of English by the parents and their children. Ironically, the activists themselves usually speak very well in English. This puts them in a position of great power relative to the immigrant population.

KarenT   ·  March 19, 2007 1:22 PM

I forgot to mention the role of gangs in the lives of kids who don't learn in school. In our small community, gangs tend to take over some some of the functions usually filled by the family in the life of a child. It may be many years before the child realizes that the gang is not really a family.

Young wanna-be gang members intimidate other students in schools and draw the attention of teachers, administrators and students away from learning, starting in about the fourth grade. The parents of these budding gang-bangers typically either avoid interactions with the schools or demand that the schools take over their parental roles. The few really good students are sequestered in honors programs, and their parents have cooperative relationships with the schools.

Fortunately, gang activity here is not as brazen as it is in some other places. And gangs are less successful financially here than in areas where drug-selling and other illicit activities are big business. But we still have the occasional gang-related shooting, along with more frequent dust-ups among school age gang members, over extremely stupid things. I only remember one murder in town last year which may not have been gang-related: a case of domestic violence to the extreme by a mentally disturbed person. I don't recall that a gun was involved.

Gang members are big on demanding respect. The "self-esteem movement" recently popularized through schools of education plays right into this. Many school-age gang members and adult criminals have very high self-esteem. And since they have been granted may adult rights for years, regardless of their lack of mature or responsible behavior, why should they change? Why should they learn to read?

Even kids who don't get into legal trouble have problems related to taking on adult rights too early. There are a lot of girls who have babies in high school, with totally unrealistic dreams of raising their children in ideal circumstances. Their mothers or aunts often end up raising the children. The alternative of adoption, even open adoption, is far too responsible for these young women to consider.

And many young men who have "finished" school remain dependent on their parents for decades - often even while harming their families through gang activity. They spend their time hanging out with their homies, playing really vile, antisocial music in front of their parents' homes. They seem unable to emotionally handle real work lasting more than a few days.

Many of them are proud that they have fathered children being raised by the relatives of their girlfriends (or once in a while, by their own relatives). But though they may play with their children occasionally, they take little parental responsibility beyond buying the kids cute little gang-banger clothes and showing them off to their homies.

KarenT   ·  March 19, 2007 2:46 PM

Great comments, and you're absolutely right that the teachers have no authority. It has to change. There is simply no excuse for what is going on. Disruptive kids should not be there interfering with the rights of kids who are not. Same thing with gangs. I have a close friend who devoted two years to becoming a teacher and then quit because he had no authority in his classroom. It is an outrage, and I can't believe people tolerate it. (Of course, in the nicer schools, the parents care.)

Very thoughtful comments; thanks for coming!

Eric Scheie   ·  March 19, 2007 10:44 PM

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