Posts Tagged ‘violence’


Everyone has been talking, sensibly or not, about guns since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. I had not waded in for a few reasons. Many experts are writing about the topic in the press; I have no particular expertise on the question of whether guns cost or save more lives; and the research literature on the subject is a morass. Moreover, studies of gun violence have been limited by federal legislation explicitly restricting health researchers from addressing the question.[1] But I’ll take this post to make a few partly-informed observations.


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Voting Violence

One of the simmering issues of the political summer is the court battle over voter identification laws in many Republican-governed states. Requirements that voters present photo IDs, such as drivers’ licenses, and other constraints, such as curtailing early voting, promise to reduce the number of poor, elderly, and minority voters in those states. One of the hardest tasks supporters of the new restrictions have is to keep a straight face when claiming that these changes have nothing to do with partisan politics, with reducing Democratic votes.

Registering 1960 (Tennessee Encycl.)

No doubt, some trickery comes from both sides – for example, encouraging college students to register at school or at home depending on where their votes will make the most difference, or ignoring the people who vote twice because they have residences in two states. One’s position on the ID debate should depend on whether your principle is “better ten legitimate voters disenfranchised than one illegitimate voter casting a ballot” or vice-versa. But people’s actual positions depend on whose voters are being turned away.

As this struggle unfolds, it recalls an old American tradition of voting fraud, voting suppression, and voting violence.


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Can’t Believe It

In the flurry of reviews – and comments on the reviews – of Stephen Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I spy a frequent complaint. (Here is my own analysis of Pinker, in the Boston Review.) The book’s central claim is that rates of killing, attacks, brutality, and war have — even given the 20th century’s world wars and genocides — sharply declined over human history. He must be wrong, the critics assert. He has miscounted, or used sleight of hand, or willfully ignored what is obvious to all, they say: that violence is up.


Why are such critics so intent on, so earnest in, defending the view that our time – this decade, the past century, the modern era – is the most violent time? The historical record is clear, as I noted in an earlier post, that rates of violence – and sadism and physical abuse – are at the lowest ever, at least in the West. And violence has been in a long, although unsteady, decline even in the United States (see here). This is not a controversial conclusion among scholars. Why do so many people nonetheless disbelieve?


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New News, Old News

I look forward to reading Steven Pinker’s heralded new book on violence.


Its message, that violence has sharply declined in human history, has been received with gasps of amazement – at least by The New York Times Book Review and by NPR. Pinker appears to have done a thorough job of summarizing the findings – old, familiar findings. My comment focuses on how this media attention illustrates how  the same historical findings come around and around again as startling “news.” (more…)

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A Crime Puzzle

Violent crime went down in America again last year [2009 – and through 2011; see update below]. According to preliminary statistics from the FBI, the number of violent crimes dropped by about 5 percent from 2008. Given population growth, that means that the rate of violent crime dropped even more. (So did property crime.)

This is a puzzle because (a) violent crime is more common among the poor; (b) the percentage of Americans who are poor has been trending up since about 2000; and (c) the economy tanked last year. One would have expected a rise, not a fall, in violent crime.

But this head-scratcher is just part of a larger puzzle – understanding long-term trends in America’s criminal violence.


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