Every day in America, about 31 people are killed in gun homicides. It's a grisly death toll — one that no other developed nation has to deal with.
The political response to this violence has focused on gun control. But while the research shows gun control is truly effective, federal legislation curtailing access to guns seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
So what can America do to stop gun violence? A new, major report from Harvard University researchers Thomas Abt and Christopher Winship reviewed the evidence, putting together the big take from 43 reviews of the research that covered more than 1,400 individual studies, while following up with on-the-ground fieldwork across the US and Latin America.
Related: 6 proven policies for reducing crime and violence without gun control
The big conclusion: Cities, states, and the federal government could make significant strides in fighting crime if policing resources were primarily dedicated to the most problematic neighborhoods, blocks, and even people — the ones communities know are up to trouble but are sometimes neglected by the criminal justice system. And coupled with behavioral intervention programs for civilians, these types of policies could greatly reduce violence not just in the US but around the world.
But the findings aren't exactly new or shocking. We've had many of these studies and reviews for a while. Yet very often, all this evidence is glossed over as people instead resort to partisan debates about criminal justice reform, the disproportionate policing of black neighborhoods, and gun policy. And while these are all conversations America needs to have, they seem unlikely to produce results in the short and medium term.
I reached out to Abt to get his views on these issues, how to frame the debate around fighting crime, and what the evidence shows the solutions should be. Our conversation, based on email and phone correspondences, follows, edited for length and clarity.
The "oversimplification" of America's criminal justice debate
German Lopez: What do you think is wrong with how we talk about criminal justice policy in the US today?
Thomas Abt: My biggest problem with the national conversation is we've created a false dichotomy between legitimacy and safety.
If you criticize police, you're causing a "Ferguson effect" and driving up homicides. If you care about black-on-black crime — a misleading but popular term — you're trying to undermine reform and preserve the status quo.
We'll only make true progress when we realize that we must focus on reducing crime and improving the criminal justice system at the same time, because they're inextricably intertwined with one another. If you only care about one side of the coin, you're doing a disservice to the people most impacted by both of these issues, which is usually people of color living in poor neighborhoods.
GL: Covering this issue, it does seem like people quickly fall into their partisan sides as soon as something goes wrong, and a lot of policies get neglected in the process. Is that what you mean?
Mass incarceration is a form of social injustice. Excessive use of police force is an injustice. Racial profiling is an injustice.
But crime is also an injustice. And like those three forms of injustice that I just described, it has a disproportionate impact on poor people of color. So if you claim to represent poor people of color, I think you really need to take a broader perspective on what social justice means. And I think that when you talk to people who live in these communities, as I have for many years, they have this balanced view.
For instance, it's very unusual to meet people who live in neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime who say, "We want the police out of our neighborhoods." They want bad police out of their neighborhoods, but they don't want all police out of their neighborhoods.
Yet there's a kind of oversimplification and distortion that we get into.
GL: How do we move past this hurdle, politically?
TA: It requires people on both sides of the political divide — you know, conservatives and progressives — to reexamine their talking points.
When I talk to either side about the evidence, I could never say to them that I can confirm everything they already thought. You're challenging both sides at the same time. The evidence, while it shows a real and viable solution to the problem, doesn't fit into a preestablished political narrative. That makes it hard.