Why We Still Have a Long Way to Go: A Drop in Crime Has Our Country Celebrating. but We Won't Really Be Safe until We Strengthen Our Gun Laws

By Maple, Jack | Newsweek, August 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

Why We Still Have a Long Way to Go: A Drop in Crime Has Our Country Celebrating. but We Won't Really Be Safe until We Strengthen Our Gun Laws


Maple, Jack, Newsweek


In this country we declared victory in crime-fighting much too early. In 1999, America is a safer place than it was in 1990. But our country's recent litany of mayhem with guns reveals how violent it still is. Everybody's patting himself on the back because of a modest drop in crime. But young black males are still being murdered at 20 times the national rate. The reason the shooting at the Jewish community center in California made headlines earlier this month is that it makes the point that terrible violence can happen to anybody.

We should use this moment as an opportunity to attack complacency. Violent crime in America remains much too high--3.5 times higher than it was in 1961. Twenty or 30 years ago, criminals used Saturday-night specials or revolvers. Now, with automatics and semiautomatics, not only is the bullet more powerful but the round-capacity is much greater. The shooter can change magazines much more quickly than he could reload a revolver. So he lets more rounds go and more people are killed.

I know something about the bumpy road to victory. In 1994, when I was deputy commissioner of the NYPD, we held a press conference to announce a big drop in crime. Just as the conference began, my beeper went off. The message that scrolled across the screen said there were two people shot dead in Queens. As I watched, the number climbed to three people, then four people, then five. It turned out two hit men had busted their way into an apartment and blown away seven people, including a few who weren't involved in their drug deal. When you go to a scene like that, the victims look almost peaceful. You walk into a room and see the dead neatly laid out. Then you look more closely. You see how the victims put their hands up at the last second, trying to block the bullets. And you see how the bullets went through their hands, into their faces. And you realize, even in the final moment, people always hope the shooters will change their minds.

New Orleans, where I've been consulting lately, has had the biggest decline in violent crime of any major U.S. city from 1996 to 1998. But something awful happened there this month. A drug dealer killed a drug buyer who'd brought his girlfriend and her 2-year-old kid to the scene. Then the dealer shot the girlfriend, who survived, in both her arms. And then he executed the 2-year-old kid. Episodes like that one show us that we have a long, long way to go. We're going to celebrate a millennium this year. The murder rate is five times higher than it was 100 years ago.

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