Everyday Einstein looks at what science tells us concerning violent crime.
When violence and tragedy touch our lives, we often look for some way to affect change. We look for some meaningful action we can take to help prevent similar tragedies from occurring. Such were my thoughts after the heart-breaking shootings that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary school. I wondered what I could do as a father, scientist, and a writer to help prevent similar tragedies.
As I followed the commentary after the event, three claims struck me, which I’d like to explore today. The first was that this shooting could have been prevented by stricter gun control policies. The second was that extreme acts of violence such as this are a result of individuals being desensitized to violence through increased exposure to violent video games. The third viewpoint was that the killer had Asperger syndrome, therefore it was expected that he would exhibit violent behavior.
I wanted to know the truth behind each of these claims. So, in this week’s episode, I look at some of the research surrounding each of these claims. I encourage you to read it with an open mind.
Gun Legislation and Violence
As with any controversial bit of legislation, it’s critical to have an understanding of the science behind the issue. Several studies have been done on the effects of gun legislation both in the United States and in other parts of the world.
In 1988 scientists at DePaul University looked at an interesting case study. Two cities in the state of Illinois that had similar demographic profiles enacted different laws related to gun control. One city enforced strict penalties on those found with handguns outside their homes, while another city banned handguns completely. While both cities saw a temporary decrease in gun-related crime, both of the effects were only temporary. After a few months, gun-related crime returned to the same levels as before.
Another study by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993 found that keeping a handgun in the home increases the risk of gun-related homicide in the home. However, another study found that overall homicide rates (including those not carried out with a gun) were unrelated to handgun laws.
A further study, also in 1993, found that suicide rates were also positively correlated with having a gun in the home. And another study found that overall suicide rates are effectively curbed by handgun laws.
Finally, yet another study in 1993 found that there was no correlation between violent crime and gun laws. What does this all mean?