Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Friday, 21 December 2012

On homicide in America

It is just one week since the horrific shooting of school children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut. In that time a lot has been written about the possible causes of the massacre the need for gun control, and what should be done to prevent similar events occurring in the future. It is with a certain degree of reluctance that I enter this debate, for both the killing itself and the topic of gun control are highly emotive subjects, but there is nonetheless something to be learned from taking a broader perspective on these events.

Map of the world by intentional homicide rates (from Wikipedia)
A starting point for discussing this is that the rate of homicide in the US is high -  much higher than in any other affluent first-world democracy - and thus that incidents such as the Sandy Hook shooting have to be seen in this context. There has been a slight decline in the homicide rate over the first part of this century, but the overall pattern suggests that homicide rates have been higher in the US than in other western countries since the middle of the nineteenth century.

One explanation of this is often seen in the availability of firearms. A useful starting point is this map which shows rates of gun ownership and homicide by firearm worldwide. This makes it clear in a graphic way that there is some link between the availability of firearms and firearm homicides . This is hardly surprising. The availability or accessibility of certain weapons is going to be linked to violence caused by those weapons. If gun ownership is severely restricted then one would expect to see fewer homicides by firearms simply as a matter of opportunity. Thus, the map shows that while the US has one of the highest rates of gun ownership, it does not have the highest overall rate of firearm homicides. And this is something critics of proposed measures for gun control have been keen to point out: there are societies with high levels of gun ownership but a reasonably low murder rate; or conversely there might be a high murder rate in certain countries but low gun ownership - and so that murders are committed in other ways. However, it is also worth noting from the map that the percentage of all homicides committed by firearm is high in the US.Overall then gun ownership might make it easier to commit certain kinds of homicides, but do not necessarily offer a causal explanation of high rates of homicide. This might be an argument for certain kinds of gun control, as a way of reducing opportunity, but these kind of measures would not necessarily lead to a decline in the overall rate of homicide in the US.

An alternative and illuminating perspective can be found in Randolph Roth's brilliant book, American Homicide. This is a wide ranging historical survey of homicide in the US from the colonial period - when America had one of the lowest homicide rates - to the present day. Roth is sceptical of claims that the rising homicide rate can straightforwardly be linked to such factors as the relaxing of carrying concealed weapons laws or the availability of drugs or alcohol, pointing out that there are countries which consume drugs or alcohol at higher rates than the US yet have lower homicide rates. Instead he identifies four factors that are associated with low homicide rates:
  • A belief in stable government and that legal and judicial institutions are unbiased;
  • A feeling of trust in government and the officials who run it;
  • Patriotism, empathy and fellow feeling arising from racial, religious or political solidarity;
  • The belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one can be reasonably content with one's place in society or the opportunities to change it, and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence.
These are perhaps unsurprising - people are less less likely to resort to homicidal violence when they trust in legal and political institutions, when they feel that they have a valued place in society and when all groups have equal respect and access to social goods. And interestingly they point to the importance of law - but not as a mechanism that can reduce violence through the deterrent effect of harsh punishment. Law is instead important as a background institution that can secure social expectation and opportunity and generate trust and respect between citizens.

[You can check out the data at the historical violence database]

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