Can We End Our Culture of Violence?


In 1958, pioneering criminologist Marvin Wolfgang published Patterns in Criminal Homicide, a ground-breaking study of homicide in Philadelphia. That work eventually led to his theory of the subculture of violence.

The essence of this theory is that violence, as exemplified by homicide, is concentrated in a subculture of the larger society.

In the 1970s, early in my career, I worked as an investigator for the Office of the Public Defender in Newark, NJ. At one point, I replicated Wolfgang's study of homicide for a graduate school paper, using the 30 or so homicide cases I investigated. My findings mirrored his: the homicides were largely concentrated in the poor and minority neighborhoods of Newark and its immediately adjacent municipalities.

But in recent years, patterns of criminal violence and homicide have changed in profound ways. Violence, exemplified by shootings, has spread beyond the urban core to previously safe and more secure areas of cities, as well as into the suburbs.

The most recent incident was in Seattle, a city with a reputation for civility and peacefulness. The list of shootings in formerly “safe” areas must include the Virginia Tech and Fort Hood shootings, and the assault on Rep.Gabrielle Giffords and others at a shopping mall in Tucson.

These are not the places where we would expect to see horrific gun violence.

In many ways, it looks like the subculture of violence has morphed into a larger culture of violence, as Temple University professor Jerry Ratcliffe recently concluded. In Philadelphia (and elsewhere), Ratcliffe noted, “Guns are habitually used to settle disagreements.”

EDITORS NOTE: See also David Barry's article in The Crime Report, March 3, 2012, “Philadelphia's Killing Spree

A similar observation was voiced by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn: “You can see that many of (the shootings) are related to the belief that it's O.K. to carry a gun somewhere to solve a dispute.” If you subscribe to the notion that culture can be loosely defined as “the way we do things around here”, then it is not hard to argue that this country increasingly has a culture of violence.

As the violence and killings have spread beyond urban ghettoes and into traditionally safe and secure precincts of society, people are demanding action. As Mayor McGinn said, “We have to redouble our efforts in this regard.”

I would suggest that those redoubled efforts should be aimed as much at the prevention of gun violence as the punishment of violators.

In order to accomplish that, one has to understand the contributing factors to the culture of violence.

The first factor is the availability of guns of all types. In particular, there is easy access to high power, lethal weapons that have no other purpose than to kill. Automatic and semi-automatic handguns, assault rifles, large caliber weapons are readily available, both legally and illegally. So are large-capacity ammunition magazines and hollow-point bullets,

This accessible and lethal arsenal makes it easy to kill, wound and maim large numbers of people very quickly and efficiently.

(I recall reading that a gun company executive said their new .50 caliber handgun could bring down a charging grizzly bear. Now there's a problem that we all often face!)

The second factor is the rise of the drug trade. Drug dealers needed protection and had money to buy guns on the illicit market. Soon, urban youth who were not involved in the drug trade realized that many others were carrying guns, so they needed one too, for protection.

Arguments that might have a decade earlier ended in a fistfight were now likely to end in a firefight.

Another factor which has yet to be definitively linked to violence is the incredible assault of violent images. Videos, movies, games and television shows featuring non-stop, brutal and graphic violence have, I am convinced, a negative impact, particularly on younger, more impressionable kids.

Criminologists have identified a concept known as “anticipated early death,” a syndrome where youth in disadvantaged, high crime areas see little prospect of living beyond their teens. As a result, they adopt a high risk lifestyle with a “kill or be killed” ethos, quick to respond to the slightest affront, real or perceived, with disproportionate violence.

However, the shootings that have gained the most attention have been in the “safe sectors.” . Whatever one thinks about the Second Amendment, easy access to weapons is a factor in such incidents. The US has more than 300 million privately owned firearms – almost one for every man, woman and child.

This is the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world, and it has deadly consequences.

A further complicating factor is the appearance of laws like Florida's Stand Your Ground, which give armed citizens the right to use their weapons if they feel threatened. In the most bizarre example of this trend, Indiana just adopted a law that would allow a citizen to use force against a law enforcement officer. The citizen would have to “reasonably believe” that a law enforcement officer is acting illegally and that the force is needed to prevent “serious bodily injury”.

However, legally owned guns are used far more often in suicides, incidents of domestic violence and accidental shootings than in self-defense.

One example of this hit very close to home for me.

In 2006, on a quiet suburban New Jersey street not far from where my mother-in-law lived, a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed by his 11-year-old friend. As reported by the local newspaper, they had discovered a loaded weapon in the closet of the townhouse.

The shooter pointed the gun at his friend and pulled the trigger. He said he didn't know it was loaded. The gun was one of 98 weapons that the police found in the residence.

Solving this problem of easy access to guns—and changing the culture of violence—will require government action.

The discussion of ways to reduce gun violence will quickly run into the juggernaut that is the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun rights advocates. This powerful force seems immune from responsibility for any of the consequences of widespread gun ownership and use.

The disappointing lack of any gun control initiatives from President Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats is a reflection of the stranglehold that the NRA has on the Republicans, and thus on Congress.

Gun rights advocates frequently argue that better enforcement of existing laws would address the problem of gun violence. While this is important, it does not address prevention. .

The public health model for prevention has been very successful in dealing with other problems (smoking, seat belt use) and should be applied to gun violence. It is unlikely that the number of legal guns can be reduced, but trigger locks, gun safes and ammunition stored separately from the gun are all proven strategies that should be pursued.

Redirecting drug enforcement policies to allocate more resources to treatment and intervention to reduce demand, instead of enforcement and interdiction, would make sense.

Resources must also be found for employment and educational programs to create opportunities for youth, especially poor and minority youth who are so often drawn into the subculture of violence. They need to have a reason to not pull the trigger.

Changing a culture is tough work. It requires time, resources, commitment and leadership. These challenges are made even harder by our economic situation.

The question is: are we willing to make marshaling those resources a priority?

William D. Burrell is a regular blogger for The Crime Report. An independent corrections management consultant specializing in community corrections and evidence-based practices, he was a member (2003-2007) of the faculty in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. Bill previously served for 19 years as chief of adult probation services for the New Jersey state court system, He chairs the Editorial Committee for Perspectives, the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), and serves on APPA's Board of Directors. He has consulted, and developed and delivered training for probation and parole agencies at the federal, state and county levels. He welcomes reader comments.

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