are the two most ridiculous words in modern political lingo? "Random
violence." Calling violence "random" implies
that crime is just a "random" event, like hail or falling rocks.
During the Los Angeles riots, truck driver Reginald Denny, by this
theory, just had the misfortune to happen into some random violence
emitting from sociologically deprived victims just as if
he had taken a wrong turn into a sandstorm.
The theory that violence, like hail and sandstorms, is the result
of environmental conditions is popular among those who believe the
standard sociological hypothesis that people who commit crimes are
sick or somehow socially deformed as a result of our maladjusted
society. We are told that unless we radically change the social
order and spend billions on rehabilitating these "sick" people,
we will continue to suffer the "public-health" epidemic of "random
violence." While this theory is widely believed, it is wrong.
Several years ago, economists Gordon Tullock and Richard B. McKenzie
mounted a search for statistically sound studies to support the
"sick criminal" hypothesis. They found none. Instead, they found
a great deal of support for the hypothesis that most criminals are
rational individuals bent on breaking the law in search of profits.
Or, as one specialist in armed robbery told the Washington Post,
"I want to go to barber school, but I know there's not that kind
of money in barbering."
The "public-health" nostrums suggested by the "sick criminal" theory
are at odds with the solutions offered up by the "rational criminal"
school. "Sick criminal" theorists teach that punishment does not
deter crime. Just as we send people with pneumonia to hospitals
instead of prison, we should, according to this voguish theory,
shepherd "sick" criminals off to halfway houses and other rehabilitative
The "sick criminal" theorists insist that we must seal the
records of young thugs to protect their fragile self-esteem. While
the theorists can "understand" and forgive the "sick" people who
commit violent crime, they demand zealous prosecution of law-abiding
citizens who would even consider using guns to protect their property.
it harder for law-abiding citizens to possess and carry
guns only means that rational criminals will face a smaller
risk of armed resistance.
In contrast, folks who believe in the rational criminal theory argue
that crime will be reduced when it doesn't pay. They believe that
individual citizens interested in protecting their lives and property
form society's first line of defense against criminals. Buying door
locks and firearms thus raises the costs of stealing by increasing
the number and potency of obstacles with which the criminal must
contend. As John Lott demonstrates in More Guns, Less Crime,
when more citizens carry guns for lawful protection, rates of violent
crime fall. So, if the personal costs of a life of crime climb high
enough, it stands to reason that some criminals will be on the lookout
for other lines of work.
Conversely, laws inhibiting individual action against malefactors
reduce the costs of lawlessness. When landlords cannot evict unsavory
tenants, when property owners cannot oust suspicious trespassers,
and when teachers cannot eject rowdy students from class, crime
rates will increase. And as Lott
details in a new research paper, when state laws force guns
to be locked up, crime rises.
If the risks of crime fall, then crime increases. And vice-versa.
It's that simple. There's no need to send all those "sick" people
out there who are perpetrating rapes and robberies to a psychiatrist's
couch. Increase the odds that they'll go to prison or get shot,
and they'll cure themselves.
In one study of major felonies, the rate of robberies decreased
by about 1.3 per cent in response to each 1 percent increase in
the probability of punishment. In a study of crime rates in England,
the fall in imprisonment rates between 1954-1967 was found to have
contributed to a 44 percent increase in aggregate crime. These studies
also explain why overly harsh mandatory sentences often have no
deterrence effect. Life in prison means little if would-be criminals
believe that their chances of conviction are slim.
Our legislators, although they often posture about being tough on
crime, too often miss the point of "rational criminal" theory. Example:
Because so much prison space has been squandered on lengthy mandatory
minimums for drug offenders, burglars rarely go to prison. Then
legislators wonder why burglary is increasing.
Meanwhile, politicians like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Gov.
Parris Glendening of Maryland attack the very principle of self-defense
while enjoying the protection of well-armed government bodyguards.
They display little patience for the theory that people who live
in rough neighborhoods should have just as much right as politicians
to defend their lives. But making it harder for law-abiding citizens
to possess and carry guns only means that rational criminals will
face a smaller risk of armed resistance. Chances are the politicians
will then blame the NRA for the surge in "random violence."