The Washington Post Magazine

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He keeps on typing: Murder No. 69, Murder No. 70, Murder No. 71 ...

He reaches the last homicide of 1997 – "After altercation in the mall, V shot outside by 1 O" – and flips back to the front of the Homicide Book, where the five entries from the first six days of 1998 are recorded. He packs up his laptop and heads upstairs to collect a diskette full of data from the ballistics lab.

Along the back wall of the lab, behind locked doors but visible through the glass, are rows and rows of guns, mostly handguns, attached to pegboards. This is the Firearms Reference Library, and in it is a sample of almost every model of gun that has been recovered in Prince George's County over the past four years.

At last count, there were 1,086 of them.

There's always a danger of numbness in the numbers war. The killings come in such a steady drumbeat that even the shocking ones don't shock too long. To stand on the corner of Riggs and University three months after Joy Enriquez was shot is to wonder if her spirit somehow haunts the Tick Tock Restaurant or the Pep Boys Service Center or the Color Tile store across the street, behind which the killer ditched his bike in a vain effort to evade pursuit – or if, as seems more likely, nothing at all has changed in this utterly ordinary slice of the American landscape, with its utterly ordinary capacity to turn violent at any time.

"The time when it was necessary to arouse public concern about guns and violence is long past," writes Gary Kleck, explaining why his new book won't serve up "dramatic and heart-rending accounts" of gun-related mayhem from either the pro-gun or the anti-gun point of view. But in truth, the very ubiquity of those heart-rending accounts has served to undermine public concern. The numbers have sent a message to us, and the message is: Nothing can be done.

Which is why the most attractive feature of the public health approach to gun violence may simply be its fundamental, pragmatic optimism. These folks still think that something can be done.

It's not that they don't have plenty to be discouraged about. The loss of the CDC's research dollars – modest though the total was – has hurt. The Maryland surveillance project has lost its NCIPC funding, and while Wiersema and his colleagues hope to keep it going, other state surveillance programs will end. The public health emphasis on sophisticated data collection "has been a major contribution," says Philip Cook, a Duke economist who has been working on gun violence for a quarter of a century. "That was a great casualty of this cutback."

The war of words has turned unusually poisonous. There are legitimate questions about the mix of science and policy, of course – about how much and in what forums a scientist should let his or her nonscientific views be known. But in a politicized context, the label "advocate" trumps all thoughtful discussion; it becomes a club for beating those whose numbers you don't like. Thus Kleck becomes "the pro-gun Gary Kleck," which allows some opponents to dismiss his work without breaking a sweat. And Kellermann turns into "Arthur Kellermann: Anti-Gun Fanatic" on the cover of survivalist magazines.

There are real scientific limitations to the public health approach as well. Epidemiology is, by its very nature, much more inexact than the kind of science that puts people on the moon.

Still, all new science comes with a learning curve, and critics of public health research tend to ignore this point. Surely some of them have seen the process at work in other sciences: There's a bold new approach, followed by strong arguments against it, followed by more research.

And there are good reasons to believe that – slowly, incrementally, in ways not yet widely understood – the scientific and political landscape has started to change.

The public health push has made some criminologists defensive, but it has stirred others to do interesting new work. Duke's Cook, for instance, is working on a theory about the declining homicide rate that involves "some kind of contagious process" related to social influence, as well as the epidemiological concept of the "tipping point" – the idea that in an epidemic, nothing appears to change until a kind of critical mass, in one direction or the other, is obtained.

"Crime prevention as a field in criminology is starting to look a lot more like public health," says Garen Wintemute, pointing to one of criminology's trendiest new concepts, the idea that there are "hot spots" of criminal activity where extra police pressure can be profitably applied.

Arthur Kellermann is working with the Atlanta police on a prototype firearms injury tracking system designed to link emergency room and police data. Earlier this month, the CDC issued a cautiously worded request for grant proposals on "injury prevention research addressing firearm-related injuries among children and adolescents." There are stirrings in the foundation world, which in the past has shied away from the gun issue as too controversial. And the firearms industry, at least, has picked up on the tobacco analogy: With product liability lawsuits beginning to accumulate, industry executives cut a preemptive deal with the Clinton administration last fall, agreeing to voluntarily introduce child safety locks on handguns.

Meanwhile, there's the continuing mystery of the nation's falling homicide rates.

Brian Wiersema doesn't know why they're going down. Arthur Kellermann doesn't know why they're going down. Gary Kleck and Paul Blackman and Don Kates don't know why they're going down. But the CDC's Mark Rosenberg is willing to attempt an explanation.

"This was in 1993 when the downturn started," Rosenberg says, "and it occurred in a lot of different cities around the country at the same time. It occurred in cities which had community policing and it occurred in cities which did not have community policing. It occurred in cities which had very proactive commissioners and mayors very concerned with the subject and it occurred in cities where there were no specific steps taken. So it was quite widespread and kind of synchronous around the country at the same time. And there were lots of hypotheses."

He reels off half a dozen, rejecting them all. Then he cracks a tiny smile.

"To me, what really caused this downturn was that the previous year, in 1992, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control was formally announced by President Bush," he says. "That's what signaled this downturn. You had a national center! And anyone who has any questions about the effectiveness of this center – look at the data!"

But seriously.

Homicide in America is like an 800-pound gorilla, Rosenberg says, and now it's a 720-pound gorilla. The rates may have come down, but they are still unacceptably high. What's more, "this gorilla's going to wake up again, and the rates are going to go up again, and we should not by any means allow ourselves to be in a position where we're ill-prepared to address it.

"We need to learn from these experiences," he says. "And I don't think we're there quite yet."

Bob Thompson is an editor and writer for the Magazine.

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