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Violent Crime Rates Are Surging. What Can Be Done To Reverse The Trend?


Now, the president focused on violent crime because, as the mayor pointed out, it is up nationwide in many big cities. Why would that be? We've called Ronald Wright, a criminal justice expert and law professor at Wake Forest University. Good morning to you.

RONALD WRIGHT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What kinds of crimes are up here, exactly?

WRIGHT: Homicides are up. Nonviolent crimes are down. And then violent crimes that are not homicides are close to steady - in some places, up a couple of percent, in a couple of other places, down a few percent.

INSKEEP: Is this reliable information? Because when we get into crime statistics, we often learn that the federal government doesn't have the precision that we might wish to have with crime stats.

WRIGHT: They're reasonably reliable. But they're not complete. So we still at this point are just looking at reports, early reports, from a number of cities. But we won't get the complete national picture for months and months, which is remarkable when you think about it.

INSKEEP: And I don't want to suggest at all that an increase in homicides is not important. Obviously, it's exceptionally important in the lives of people who are directly affected. But I want to keep it in perspective. Are we still relatively near historic lows in crime? Or have things significantly moved up?

WRIGHT: Homicides have significantly moved up from recent years. So this takes us back to levels - homicide rates that we would have seen in the late '90s. But it would have been much higher than this as a matter of homicide rates in the early '90s. And as for the other crimes, we're still way down at the lower levels that we had been moving toward over the last couple of decades.

INSKEEP: So we're focused here on homicides. We're focused, I think, in many cases, on gun homicides. That's certainly what the president was focused on yesterday, looking at different ways to reduce the availability of firearms within the rather limited power the federal government seems to have. Is the availability of firearms a clear factor in this increase in homicides?

WRIGHT: Yeah, I think it is because we have a larger group of people who purchased firearms during the pandemic. It's not just the usual sales that ebb and flow. But we do have a larger group of people holding firearms. And lots of the crime increase that we're seeing, particularly in homicide, is gun related. So I think availability of guns is part of the problem. These are always multipart problems.

INSKEEP: Wasn't there an enormous increase in gun sales during 2020, the time of the pandemic and also of the election?

WRIGHT: Yeah. That's right. And it's not just the usual people buying guns because they're anxious about the, you know, political state of the nation. But this was an increase in the number of people buying, not just the number of guns. So this wasn't just people adding to their existing stockpile of guns. But this was new gun owners coming on.

INSKEEP: Well, that is particularly interesting because I'm mindful - and tell me if I'm wrong about this. I'm mindful that if you have a gun in the house, I mean, there's just a chance it's going to be used. The availability of a gun increases the chance that someone in that household at some point is going to use it. Is that a factor here?

WRIGHT: It is. If you don't follow proper storage procedures then bringing a gun into the house brings more risk with it into the house, unless you are doing the things that you need to do to store the gun properly.

INSKEEP: And we have in this case, from what you're describing, people who are new gun owners.

WRIGHT: Yes. That's right.

INSKEEP: So what would you do about this problem, this rise in homicides, if it were up to you?

WRIGHT: I would be focused on the local response because crime - public safety and crime is a state and local issue before it is a federal issue. So at the federal government level, what you can do is support local governments, listen and provide them resources, provide them better data so that they're not flying blind. They can see what they're doing and compare it to other places. But the response has to be local rather than federal.

INSKEEP: And what could local communities, local police do?

WRIGHT: Well, ultimately, what they're aiming for is a relationship of trust with the community. You don't solve crimes if you show up, there's a shooting, and you ask what happened and everybody mistrusts the police and they won't answer your questions. So you've got to create that relationship of trust.

INSKEEP: Ronald Wright, criminal justice expert and law professor at Wake Forest University. Thanks so much, sir.

WRIGHT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "FEELINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.