Research: Differences in firearm ownership regulations appear not to cause the differing declines in firearm homicides in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand

While firearm homicides declined for decades in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, New Zealand saw greater declines than the other two countries. These differences don’t seem to come from differences in gun control policies, according to research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2011.

A 2009 report from the Australian Institute of Criminology at least partially inspired the research. The report proposed that Australia firearm homicide declines were the fastest in the Western world. Samara McPhedran, Jeanine Baker, and Pooja Singh—all members of the International Coalition for Women in Shooting and Hunting, which is based in Australia—set out to test this claim.

Most research into firearm homicide looks at a single place before and after changes to laws. McPhedran and her colleagues write that these “results and conclusions vary considerably.” While valuable in evaluating the effects of legislation, the researchers argue such “research does not generally provide long-term comparisons of firearm violence between countries” that could tell us whether trends seen at the country, state, or province level are reflected internationally. International comparisons could help us see how other factors, such as policing practices and socioeconomic variables, could influence firearm deaths.

McPhedran et al. acknowledge that work has been done to look at local Australian trends, but argue the following point:

Australian research does not currently offer information about whether the long-term, ongoing, downwards trend in Australian firearm homicide is unique compared to other countries.

They compared Australia to Canada and New Zealand because all three countries share similar histories and had collected relevant information for the last few decades, only really differing on legislative restrictions. For example, Canada and New Zealand let citizens own and use firearms that Australia has banned. Another example: Canada and Australia required citizens to register their firearms for some of the years covered in the data, but New Zealand didn’t.

The researchers looked at data for the years 1979 to 2007 in Australia and Canada and at New Zealand data for 1986 to 2007, which were the only years available.

They write:

The long-term trends in Australian and Canadian firearm homicide did not differ significantly. However, firearm homicide in New Zealand declined more markedly between 1986 and 2007 (around 8% per year, on average) than firearm homicides in either Australia or Canada over the same period.

They argue that their findings do not seem to reflect the differences in legislative restrictions surrounding firearm ownership in the three countries and that suggests that explanations might need to come from elsewhere.

Such an explanation might lie in socioeconomic factors on which New Zealand differs from Canada and Australia. For example, the researchers note that after the economic downturn of the 1990s each country had unemployment rates around 10 per cent before declining.

“However,” they continue, “unemployment rates in New Zealand have consistently been lower than Australian unemployment rates, which have in turn been lower than Canadian unemployment rates.”

The researchers write that future work will look closer at possible relationships between unemployment and firearm homicide rates.

Other economic factors might also play a role. While each of the three countries saw similar economic growth overall, McPhedran et al. note that little is known about how the countries compare on socioeconomic disadvantage within each country.

Finally, McPhedran et al. argue that it’s possible that “broader changes in social policy and crime prevention policies may explain the declines in firearm homicide.”

This explanation depends on reports from the Australian Institute of Criminology and Statistics Canada that suggest that the majority of firearms used in homicides in those two countries were owned illegally. McPhedran et al. suggest this might mean that the regulation of firearms ownership in Australia and Canada might not influence the people who use firearms violently, while social and crime prevention policies might.

The researchers cite Australian and Canadian research that links the illicit drug trade to firearm homicide and also cite a Royal Canadian Mounted Police report that links “recent spikes in the rate of Canadian firearm homicide” to “gang- and drug-related activity involving young men from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.” Moreover, they refer to work from these countries that shows “that firearm homicides, though rare, occur disproportionately in urban crime ‘hotspots.'”

While the researchers looked for comparable information about both the licensing status of offenders and of the link between social disadvantage or the illicit drug trade and firearm homicide for New Zealand, there was little to be found, beyond broad links between social disadvantage, illicit drug trade and violence in general. This makes questions such as whether the same factors were at work on firearm homicide in New Zealand or whether the same factors accounted for the faster declines in New Zealand firearm homicides speculative and thus excellent ones, in my opinion, for future research.

Similarly, McPhedran et al. argue the following:

Long-term monitoring of violence in areas of urban disadvantage may elucidate whether community-oriented partnerships and prevention efforts have an influence on firearm (and, indeed, nonfirearm) homicide rates, above and beyond the influence of broader social and economic factors. This is a direction for future study.
Samara McPhedran, Jeanine Baker, & Pooja Singh (2011). Firearm Homicide in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand: What Can We Learn From Long-Term International Comparisons? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26 (2) DOI: 10.1177/0886260510362893

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How means and ends can lead to crime and deviance

Welcome to the first in a new category of articles: brief introductions to major theories relevant to crime. Since my academic training is in sociological criminology, that will tend to be the pool of literature I draw on. I intend to branch out into related disciplines as I learn more about them. Like most of the other writing you’ll find here, these are intended for understanding by a broader audience and not as pieces of academic writing in their own right. As the archive grows, these theory articles will inevitably become interlinked with research reporting to show how theory and research play off of each other.

This first article will focus on Robert K. Merton’s classic “Social structure and anomie,” which spawned a branch of criminological thought that became known as strain theory.

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) was born Meyer R. Schkolnick and grew up in the South Philadelphia slums. An avid reader, the boy spent endless hours in the local Carnegie library where the lighting was better than the gaslights that lit his home. Merton Americanized his name as a teenager before going on to become a legend in sociology. During a long academic career, Merton coined phrases such as “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “unintended consequences.”

In 1938, Merton published “Social structure and anomie,” a paper that would become a classic in criminological theory. Like many sociological works relevant to crime, it is important to keep in mind that Merton’s focus was not just crime, but deviance from social norms. Crime, almost by definition, is an example of such deviance.

In “Social structure and anomie,” Merton started by noting a tendency in the sociological theory of his time to look at the social order as nothing more than a tool to manage people’s biological impulses. When things went wrong, it was often thought to be because the social order failed to keep people in line.

“Nonconformity is assumed to be rooted in original nature,” Merton wrote. “Conformity is by implication the result of an utilitarian calculus or unreasoned conditioning.”

The problem Merton had with this tendency was that it didn’t allow for deviation from socially prescribed actions that weren’t caused in some way by biological drives. He argued that not only are there nonbiological reasons for deviation, but there are actually circumstances where the “infringement of social codes constitutes a ‘normal’ response.”

Ends and means
In developing this argument, Merton focused on two of the many elements of social structure: culture goals and institutional norms.

Institutional norms are the culturally approved means of attaining the goals celebrated by a given culture.

“Every social group,” argued Merton, “invariably couples its scale of desired ends with moral or institutional regulation of permissible and required procedures for attaining these ends.”

The catch, however, is that these means and ends are not universally and equally accepted within society. There may be an equilibrium so long as people are satisfied with achieving the goals and that the goals are achieved directly from the approved means.

In some social groups, the importance of achieving the goals will be stressed more than the means approved by the overarching culture. Merton used sports as an example to illustrate his point, arguing that when winning becomes more important than winning within the rules of the game, illegal but effective tactics will be favoured over those allowed by the rules:

The star of the opposing football team is surreptitiously slugged; the wrestler furtively incapacitates his opponent through ingenious but illicit techniques; university alumni covertly subsidize ‘students’ whose talents are largely confined to the athletic field.

When ends and means meet
Merton described five different adaptations that can result: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

He noted that these adaptations aren’t descriptions of personality and “that persons may shift from one alternative to another as they engage in different social activities.” That is, someone who is a conformist in one situation may be a rebel in another.

When conforming, people accept both the culture goals and the institutionalized means of achieving them. Almost by definition, this is the most common of the five adaptations. Those who work in legitimate jobs in pursuit of a house, a family, a car, and the rest are in this category.

Innovators accept the goals, but reject the approved means. They may resort to careers that are outside the law (e.g. drug dealing, thievery, etc.) in order to secure the goals of their society.

In ritualism, the goals are rejected, but the approved means are followed anyway.

Retreatists reject both the approved means and ends of society. Merton argues that this is the least common adaptation of the five. Writing about 70 years ago, Merton suggests:

In this category are some of the activities of psychotics, psychoneurotics, chronic autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts.

Rebels also reject the means and ends, but the similarity ends there. New ends and means are substituted for the ones rejected.

Merton argued that innovation, ritualism, and rebellion are possible when successfully achieving the culture goals is difficult or impossible through the approved means.

“This theoretical analysis may go far toward explaining the varying correlations between crime and poverty,” wrote Merton, noting that crime and poverty tended to go hand-in-hand in the the United States more than in southeastern Europe.

He argued that while the U.S. appears to have more chances for upward mobility than the European countries, the European class structures are characterized by a system where the culturally approved “symbols of achievement” are different for each class. Those in the lower classes, argued Merton, were not encouraged to want the same things available to and desired by those in the upper classes. The American situation had, and still has, everyone pursuing the same set of goals, even though the roads to those goals are not as open for some as they are for others.

Merton argued that the extreme result of such a society is anomie, or “cultural chaos.” This chaos isn’t a result of the social order failing to rein in biological drives, but of it failing to manage what he called the “means-and-goals phases of the social structure.”

Room for improvement
In the final passage of “Social structure and anomie,” Merton acknowledged that his theoretical analysis is incomplete, noting that it does not address things such as the factors the lead to one response or another.

It would be a shame if this were the end of the matter. Thankfully, it is not. Merton’s paper influenced a number of other theorists and researchers throughout the 20th Century. Stay tuned for reviews of their work.

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Don’t know why I thought I could write a post this week…

MA major paper due tomorrow. New posts return soon. My apologies.

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The Mission; or, Why I Write, Part III

This is the third and final part in a series of articles called The Mission; or, Why I Write. If you haven’t read them yet, I recommend reading Part I and Part II first. This part was supposed to go up last Friday, but it took longer than expected to put together.

Last time, I talked about why I think we can build a world where crime policy is built on knowledge. I talked about a number of things, including the wisdom of the crowd and the cognitive surplus. If you enjoyed the videos of Clay Shirky discussing the cognitive surplus, or if you can’t quite remember why it’s relevant, I’ve got another one for you. I’ll embed it in a moment, but if you don’t want to watch it, that’s fine. You probably had enough abstract stuff last time. This time, I’m going to be a little more concrete. In fact, you can think of this post as a more down to earth version of Part II. Just scroll past and keep Read More »

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Study examines the relationship between mixed-use land and violence

Retail Experience: Victoria GardensLet’s imagine two kinds of areas. In one we have businesses and nothing but businesses. In the other there are only houses. No doubt you can think of places like both, but they’re on two extreme ends of a spectrum. In between, you get mixed land use, where neighbourhoods have a mix of houses and businesses. According to recent research by a team of people from Ohio State University, the “commercial and residential density” levels of these mixed neighbourhoods are related to levels of violence in the neighbourhood.

Specifically, at low density levels, when density increases, so do the rates of homicide and aggravated assault. Once you hit a certain level, however, as density increases the rates of homicides and aggravated assaults drop.

The study’s lead author Christopher Browning is quoted in the The Columbus Dispatch on why Read More »

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The Mission; or, Why I Write, Part II

This is the second in a three-part series about Why I Write. You can read Part I here. Part III will be available next Friday. The series is both an exercise in transparency and a shameless attempt to show you that by keeping up with this blog, you’ll be a part of something bigger.

If you’ve read Part I, you may think that I’ve carved out an impossible task for myself. Up until about a year ago, I agreed. For years I was sure that my mission to change the way the general public understands crime was doomed to failure. I was committed to finding a way, and years of pounding away at a brick wall finally brought me to a solution that I believe will work. Read More »

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A Potentially Surprising Fact About Gun Deaths in Canada

It may surprise you to learn that most gun deaths in Canada are suicides (PDF).

Given news media tendencies to report homicides and shy away from suicides, I would argue that most people don’t know this. After all, homicides are statistically rare and inherently dramatic. This confers instant news value. Suicides, however, are shrouded in cultural taboo and shielded by the desires of families for privacy. We don’t talk about them and reporters tend not to report on them.

That all makes sense, but where is this fact in discussions of gun control? Shunted to the side, while Read More »

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The Mission; or, Why I Write, Part I

No research today. This time I’m just going to hop on the soapbox and talk about why I do this.

At some point during my undergraduate education, I realized that nobody was paying real attention to the research generated by criminologists. They get token nods. Essentially: “That’s interesting, but go back to your ivory tower while those of us who know what it’s like on the ground figure out what to do. We don’t need you.” That’s about all.

It pissed me off. Still does.

So while I continued my studies of crime and its causes, I also paid more and more attention to Read More »

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Study: Increase booze tax, decrease harmful effects of booze on society

South Utica Liquor StoreRelying on previous research studying the relationship between alcohol taxes and risky behaviour, a new study estimates that increasing such taxes would have an effect on a host of harmful things associated with drinking.

The Deseret News reports that this study and a previous one showing a 5 per cent drop in boozing resulting from a 10 per cent increase in booze prices are pretty powerful. They quote the new study’s lead author Alexander C. Wagenaar: “These two studies establish beyond any reasonable doubt that, as the price of alcohol goes up, alcohol consumption and the rates of adverse outcomes related to consumption go down.”

According to the article’s abstract, Wagenaar, Amy L. Tobler, and Kelli A. Komro searched 12 databases and turned up 50 relevant Read More »

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Reviewed: The Corner

Review of The Corner, by David Simon and Edward Burns, Read Disclosure.

Cities like Baltimore – with serious drug and gang problems – generate horrifying statistics. Drug related deaths, highschool drop out rates, homicide rates, homicide clearance rates… These cities chug along, spewing data like a severed carotid artery spurts blood.

Sometimes, the news media get the story right. Often, not. Which is why police reporter David Simon took some time off from his newspaper job to tackle the kind of project that can’t fit into the neat columns of a newspaper.

In The Corner, Simon and Burns manage to freeze the data and make people out of statistics. The police reporter and cop-turned-teacher – both white guys – spent a year getting to know the kids on one Baltimore corner. This book is the story of what those kids did in that year, told with Read More »

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