Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

  • Case of intellectually disabled teen falsely accused of sex offense reveals registry flaws

  • Louisiana law enforcement officers are moonlighting for a controversial pipeline company

  • Arizona lawsuit exposes ‘the darker side of diversion

  • When Westlaw teams up with ICE

  • White officer testifies in own defense after killing Black teen

  • Trump administration wants to penalize immigrants who use Medicaid

In the Spotlight

Economists say more guns and less regulation caused the crime spike of the ’90s

What caused the spike in America’s murder rate in the late 1980s and early 1990s?  And why did it drop so precipitously after? Two new academic papers question the theory that crack cocaine was the culprit. The drug theory posits that dealers used violence to defend their businesses, and users committed crimes to feed their addictions. But the economists behind the new papers say that this can’t fully explain why the spike in crack use was so deadly, or why murders fell in the mid-’90s. “Instead, they argue, a boom in handgun production and possession gave the crack years their fatal character—until new restrictions on firearms reversed the trendlines,” according to The Trace. “What’s striking about the gun market is you get these surges in production,” said economist Geoffrey Williams. “The production booms were followed by surges in killings.” [Alex Yablon / The Trace]

In a working paper, Geoffrey Williams and W. Alan Bartley argue that a “supply shock” of low-priced pistols in the 1980s and early ’90s led to higher levels of gun homicide among young Black men. During those years, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives loosened oversight of the gun industry and a group of Los Angeles-based manufacturers known as the “Ring of Fire” expanded the market for “Saturday Night Specials”: bottom-of-the-barrel firearms. In a separate working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July, economists William Evans, Craig Garthwaite, and Timothy Moore examine an exception to the crime drop: The murder rate for young Black men remains 25 percent higher than it was before the crack epidemic. The reason, they posit, is the lasting effects wrought by increased access to and demand for firearms during the crack years. [Alex Yablon / The Trace]

Experts have generated a multitude of theories. “The prosperity thesis argues that crime rates fall when economic conditions improve and rise when the economy sours,” writes Neil Howe for Forbes. But although “this reasoning seemed to explain falling crime rates during the economic boom of the late ’90s, it doesn’t explain why crime continued to fall during the recent recession.” A theory that the death penalty deters criminals is demonstrably false, since capital punishment has been in steep decline for two decades while crime rates have continued to fall. “Others credit a larger police presence and improved policing tactics. Yet if this were the main driver, we would expect to see dramatic city-by-city differences based on which cities implemented these new tactics—but we don’t see much variation.” [Neil Howe / Forbes]

A comprehensive study by the Brennan Center for Justice concluded that “over-harsh criminal justice policies, particularly increased incarceration … were not the main drivers of the crime decline.” In fact, “increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. Its effect on crime rates since 1990 has been limited, and has been non-existent since 2000.” More important, the authors conclude, were “various social, economic, and environmental factors, such as growth in income and an aging population.” They also attribute some success to the introduction of data-driven policing. [Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling / Brennan Center for Justice]

Freakonomics fans are familiar with the abortion theory, which holds that in 1994, when the crime rate started to drop, there were fewer 21-year-olds on the street because 21 years prior, in 1973, abortions became legal under Roe v. Wade. It is one of the few theories that has empirical support from other countries. But there are reasons to doubt: Women did get abortions before Roe, and some were still unable to get them afterward. And in the 1990s, the crime rate went down among many age groups at once, not just among people born in 1973 or later. Crime continued to decline in the 2000s, after the Roe v. Wade generation was out of prime criminal age. [Dara Lind and German Lopez / Vox]

“Historians agree that the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with the baby boom: There were more young men than ever before, and young men are the people who commit most crimes,” writes Dana Goldstein for the Marshall Project. “As the boomers aged out of trouble in the early 1980s, crime fell.” But during the period of the crime decline from 1992 to today, there has been no significant decrease in the number of young men. “Some experts believe the growth in the population over the age of 50 has contributed to better public safety, because there are more adults monitoring young people’s behavior,” but this effect is most likely small if it exists at all. Another thesis would attribute a drop in crime to technology such as air conditioning and television, which brought people into their homes. Technology has also made cars more difficult to steal, and the introduction of debit cards means people carry less cash. [Dana Goldstein / Marshall Project]

One of the more popular theories in recent years attributes crime to lead. The ban on lead paint and leaded gasoline, awareness about lead in water, and general lead abatement efforts all decreased lead exposure particularly among children born from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. This correlates strongly to the cohort of children who hit peak criminal age in the 1990s and 2000s. The “data suggests that these specific cohorts were less likely to get arrested for crime,” according to Vox. “Given that there’s a body of psychological research tying lead exposure to more aggressive behavior, it’s likely reduced lead exposure played a role in reducing arrests and crime.” And unlike other theories, evidence also comes from other developed countries, which have had parallel experiences. [Dara Lind and German Lopez / Vox]

Stories From The Appeal

Edgar Coker with his parents at University of Virginia School of Law in 2014.  [University of Virginia School of Law]

Case of Intellectually Disabled Teen Falsely Accused of Sex Offense Reveals Registry Flaws. Before Edgar Coker was exonerated in a rape case, he underwent therapy meant to prevent sexual reoffenses. Thousands of kids involved in sexual offenses are forced into therapies like “relapse prevention” that experts say are ineffective. [Joseph Darius Jaafari]

Louisiana Law Enforcement Officers Are Moonlighting for a Controversial Pipeline Company. Off-duty law enforcement officers are using state resources to work side jobs for the pipeline company. [Karen Savage]

Stories From Around the Country

Arizona lawsuit exposes ‘the darker side of diversion’: The lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, “says the county attorney’s office falsely told people charged with first or second marijuana offenses … that they could be imprisoned,” writes Shaila Dewan for the New York Times. “In Arizona, they cannot.” The suit also alleges that “defendants who could pay the full $950 or $1,000 fee for diversion, plus the cost of drug tests, could be finished in three months, while those who needed more time to pay had to stay in the program longer, thus racking up more costs.” Katie Chamblee-Ryan, a lawyer with Civil Rights Corps, said, “The consequences are the worst for the poorest people in the program,” who “risk being expelled from the program and prosecuted for a felony just because they can’t afford a drug test.” The Maricopa County attorney’s office called the lawsuit “self-indulgent.” According to their written statement, the “outrageous characterization proffered by the ironically named ‘Civil Rights Corps’ is ill-informed and misguided.” [Shaila Dewan / New York Times]

When Westlaw teams up with ICE: Legal research companies like Lexis and Westlaw are selling surveillance data and services to ICE and other law enforcement agencies. It is time to consider the ethical implications of these actions, writes Sarah Lamdan in a forthcoming article for the N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change. “Other industries focus on supply chain ethics to ensure that their products and practices comply with their ethical standards,” she writes. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the American Bar Association have not yet addressed these issues but “lawyers must ensure that their non-attorney vendors follow ethical standards that comply with the rules of professional responsibility.” [Sarah Lamdan / N.Y.U. Review of Law & Social Change]

White officer testifies in own defense after killing Black teen: Roy Oliver, the former police officer who fatally shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards took the stand last week in his own defense. Oliver is charged with murder for killing the ninth-grader as he sat in a car leaving a party in Balch Springs, Texas. Moments before Oliver fired, someone had heard gunshots in the neighborhood, although they turned out to have nothing to do with Jordan or his friends. Oliver told jurors that he felt compelled to shoot because he feared a fellow officer was in danger of being run over by the car Jordan was in, which he said had stopped but then moved forward. According to prosecutors, no one was ever in danger until Oliver fired five times and continued to shoot as the car, driven by Jordan’s brother, drove away. Oliver was “conversational on the stand,” according to the Dallas Morning News. “He didn’t lose his temper. At least two jurors nodded as he spoke.” [Jennifer Emily / Dallas Morning News]

Trump administration wants to penalize immigrants who use Medicaid: The “public charge rule” requires officials to take into account whether an immigrant is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” in considering an application to become a permanent resident. It doesn’t mean a person will get deported but it does put legal immigrants’ future status in limbo. As a result, many opt out of benefits, and it could get worse. Draft revisions to the rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would cover a much wider range of benefits including Medicaid and other noncash benefits like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, and early education programs like Head Start. A DHS official called public benefit use by immigrants deeply unfair to U.S. taxpayers, claiming that nearly 3 in 4 voters want newcomers to be financially self-sufficient. [Kadia Tubman / Yahoo News]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.