Several notable pieces have appeared this summer describing a recent rise in violent crime. See, e.g., here and here, and Heather MacDonald’s recent WSJ piece here. There are, of course, varied explanations for why this is happening, and some dispute that a nationwide crime wave exists. But what is happening, particularly in some major cities, is not a phenomenon that can be ignored. And it is an appropriate subject for national politics, in substantial part because it is hard to separate any national conversation about violent crime from guns, which are a subject of national legislation. I hope it will come up in tonight’s debate.
To his credit, Donald Trump has talked as much about crime as anyone on the trail. Although much of his discussion of immigration is otherwise false and/or offensive, he is at least correct that some American street gangs have international connections and connections to violent drug cartels. The most recent Texas Gang Threat Assessment, for example, describes an influx of illegal alien gang members in that State, particularly with respect to MS-13. So although the gang problem here goes well beyond those with international connections, I am glad to hear someone talking about gang violence in this country, a subject that many political figures ignore, even when talking about guns and violent crime. The focus on mass killings and mental health, while useful as far as it goes, ignores the reality of day-to-day gun violence, which does not involve mass shootings. And it is hard to talk constructively about addressing day-to-day gun violence without talking about gangs and other groups that illegally traffic in, and enforce turf with, guns.
Unfortunately, Mr. Trump talks about violent crime only in the context of illegal immigration (and seems to always connect immigration and crime) and seems to think that mass deportation and beautiful construction will solve the problem. He, like most candidates, has largely ignored the broader problem of violent crime and guns (saying “I’m a big Second Amendment person” is neither a coherent constitutional theory nor a strategy for dealing with violent crime). Others in the field have spoken about criminal justice reform, and perhaps there is an argument that altering incarceration practices for some non-violent offenders will free up resources and prison space for more violent offenders, particular as violent crime rises and more prosecutions occur. But one must wonder whether spikes in violence will undermine any reform narrative that creates the appearance of softening (or ultimately does soften) the criminal law for those whose offenses are either violent or at least connected to violent organizations.
Tonight’s “debate” offers an opportunity to clarify some of the thinking on this issue, which could potentially be a winning issue for Republicans, according to this piece by Ed Rogers in WaPo. Some potential questions are lurking for any moderator willing to find them:
- Most of the violence we are seeing is being perpetrated with guns. Is there anything the federal government can do to address the problem of violent gun crime, beyond simply enforcing existing federal laws that restrict gun possession and that enhance punishment for those who commit violent crimes or drug trafficking crimes with guns? Would you support expanded background checks? Would you support a straw-purchaser law with substantial prison time as punishment? (Also, any answer that consists of a mere reference to the Second Amendment should be followed aggressively by a question which forces the candidate to explain his view of the proper scope of the Amendment’s protections).
- Do you agree with President Obama’s clemency initiative for federal drug offenders? How would you use the pardon and reprieve powers of the presidency?
- Do you support or oppose capital punishment for aggravated killings under federal law? Do you support capital punishment for treason, espionage, or terrorism? If you support the death penalty, would you be in favor of allowing accused Charleston gunman Dylann Roof to receive a plea deal that ensures life without parole but no death penalty?
- What kind of person would you select as Attorney General, and what priorities would you have your Attorney General focus upon?
I hope that as Republicans consider whether to weigh in on violent crime as a campaign theme, they will avoid any “tough-on-crime”/”soft-on-crime” demagoguery. And I hope they will go beyond the stock “I will aggressively enforce the criminal laws” approach to dealing with the issue. This is a serious matter for serious people who are interested in having a grown-up conversation about crime and punishment. Talking points and sound bites will not protect our citizens and our law enforcement officers from the dangers they now face.