If Guns Don’t Cause Crime… What Does?

question markWe all know the arguments. Sure, a gun in the wrong hands can mete out violence, death, loss, and suffering. But the same gun in the right hands can bring joy. It can be a family heirloom, murmoring comfort across generations. And it can be a bulwark of righteousness, defending the weak from arbitrary cruelties at the hands of the strong and lawless.

The same gun, the very same. So we do not believe that guns cause crime.

If guns do not, though, what does? 

Open wide!

What if free will and bad choices aren’t the only reasons some criminals come to this?

Criminologist Adrian Raine of the University of Pennsylvania has a complex and troubling array of answers in The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Raine’s conclusions are equally troubling no matter what preconceptions you bring to the table, whether you’re a fuzzy-headed liberal who think bad penumbras emanating from firearms produce a Boston Strangler, or whether you’re a deterministic right-winger who takes a gunsmithing approach: for the ones we can’t just shoot dead, just apply some Loc-Tite to the loose nut behind the trigger.

The book follows the usual format for a book meant to popularize science data:

  • Some anecdotes draw the reader’s interest. In this case, they’re criminal anecdotes, and a great many will illustrate the story and keep you engaged as a reader. But even in the preface, Raine is used to crime from the victim’s viewpoint. Where he lives, in Philadelphia, one must expect to be robbed and burgled, and anyway, “I like to live close to my data.” He is confident, at least, that none of the Philadelphia Wealth Redistribution Specialists will seize any of his books. What would they want with those? Another criminal encounter, in Bodrum, Turkey, is violent.
  • Then, the data are presented. These include the usual weak tea of social science, where .3 passes for a strong correlation, but also newer science based in genetics — molecular and behavioral genetics alike. While the idea that behaviors have, at least in part, molecular, genetic and therefore heritable components is widely denied in modern society, it’s not the scientists doing the denying.
  • In time, the theory takes shape. Raine’s theory, in a nutshell, is that, “biological factors early in life can propel some kids toward adult violence.” He explores this at length, at the evidence pro and con, and notes that this “Dr Jekyll” view of crime that informs his science is at odds with the “Mr Hyde” view that has come from being a violent-crime victim.
  • To the extent a non-fiction book has a climax, it comes when he suggests paths forward. Like a real (as opposed to social) scientist, though, Raine is careful to show both pros and cons of his view of the future.
  • Finally, the book ends with a call for, what else? More research.

The Anatomy of Violence is a long way from providing a single answer; while we can aggregate crime data and see some trends, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that each crime is a discrete act, which involves discrete individuals, not population groups or a country at large.

MonopolyJailOur answer to the question posed in the title of this post would have been, “Well, duh. Criminals cause crime, what else?” But as attractive as it might be, that simple near-tautology doesn’t answer the real question. And that is the question that Raine has actually addressed: “what causes criminals?” There are surely a multiplicity of causes. but Raine zeroes in on a couple of axes that could be developed from recorded social science data indicators: traumatic delivery at birth, and maternal rejection.

Since criminal records don’t include things like stressful deliveries (he used such proxies as prematurity, fetal-alcohol syndrome, and, surprisingly, C-section) or maternal rejection (he used proxies like the presence of the infant in government sponsored care apart from his mother during his first year), Raine had to find or make studies that correlated data about the same people from different sources — easy in, say, Scandinavian countries where there are no qualms about academic use of Government-gathered cradle-to-grave data points, harder but possible in the Anglosphere, given some imagination.

(When referring to Raine’s criminals, “his” is used advisedly; the study is primarily of violent crime, and women violent criminals are tip-of-the-distro-tail outliers both as criminals and as women, despite centuries of pursuit of equality by all right-thinking people).

You can quibble about the markers Raine chose for this hard-infancy perfecta, you can propose alternatives, you can certainly suspect that he has found a Black Swan of coincidence rather than his true correlation. But the data are striking.

It turns out that the two problems together seem to have a strong and statistically significant correlation with later-in-life criminality, but, and here’s the kicker, each one individually does not. Nearly 10% of babies who had this, as we’ve called it, hard-infancy perfecta, would later wind up as youths in trouble with the law for violent crime.

That is just one of the findings in this fascinating book.

Raine’s book looks back to Cesare Lombroso, the father of criminology, who thought that crime had a biological basis in the brain, and that criminals were throwbacks to primitive hominids. “The theory he spawned turned out to be socially disastrous,” Raine writes, but noted that Lombroso divided criminals into those who could be rehabilitated — for whom he strongly supported rehabilitation — and those that could not — for whom Lombroso’s solution, the death penalty, might be merciful. Lombroso’s approach was rejected in favor of the 20th-Century sociological approach, the failure of which is evident in most inner cities. Raine, while saying all the proper things about Lombroso’s limitations, rejects the sociological approach, and finds the answer to crime in “the dark forces of our evolutionary past.”

The behavior that seems maladaptive in today’s criminal was adaptive in the evolutionary past, and in some cases, it remains adaptive today, genetically speaking.

Raine, for his part, as a solid liberal academic, is appalled at what he has found, but seems determined to follow the data wherever it goes, regardless of his distaste for what he is learning. He seems disturbed to think what sort of social interventions might be excused if the public gets a dim, incomplete or faulty idea of what a biological basis for crime means. He has a point there; even the strongest indicators he find of criminality yield a population that’s 9/10 not criminal. Prophylactically incarcerating everyone with birth trauma and a lousy mother would fill the prisons with innocent men who have overcome these disadvantages — an outcome that the data suggest is more common that being overcome by them.

(That says something about the resilience of human beings, doesn’t it? We’re pretty robust critters, for all the first-world-problems whining by “traumatized” spoiled children).

The answer, of course, is to continue to follow the data and learn, and cautiously to pursue societal interventions, if any, that seem likely to reduce those birthing and infantile traumas and other causative factors. Meanwhile we must continue to deal with crime and criminals the only way a free society can: as individual acts by individuals and small groups of individuals. Courts with their wooly-headed judges, posturing lawyers, and gutter-swept juries are not a perfect system, just better than everything else humanity has tried since Hammurabi’s day. (You wouldn’t want to be governed by his laws; go look them up).

One of the very best predictors of violent crime, for example, is being on parole or probation for violent crime. The societal intervention suggests itself, and the last several decades’ experiment with increased incarceration of the violent seems to have proved out, as most violent crime metrics have decreased as criminals have been disabled from their preferred vocations (or avocations) by being locked up. But whatever we do must be done whilst preserving the natural rights of men — yes, even of criminals. Anything else would be unworthy of the system bequeathed us by the Age of the Enlightenment.

18 thoughts on “If Guns Don’t Cause Crime… What Does?

  1. Tom Stone

    I can’t find the link, but I recently ran across an article that showed a strong correlation between Leaded gasoline and violent crime.
    There has been a steady decrease in Violent crime worldwide that very closely matches the removal of lead from gas with a lag time time makes sense.
    Most violent criminals are both young and stupid ( Or brain damaged).
    When it comes to “Predictive criminology” the potential for abuse is enormous. Yes, I do believe there are genetic or biologic tendencies that are sometimes expressed in violent crime.
    I’m also aware that there are social factors ( Including exposure to pollutants, fetal alcohol syndrome, poor prenatal nutrition etc) that have a serious affect. I
    t seems almost unnecessary to point out that humans who have no stake in society act like they have no stake in society.
    And a significant reason they have no stake in society is the actions of non violent criminal sociopaths such as LLoyd Blankfein, Angelo Mozillo, Jaime Dimon, Eric Holder…There is no simple and effective “Silver Bullet” of an answer.
    I managed small income properties in East Oakland for 15 years and I have been doing volunteer work in the jails for more than a decade.
    I have experienced violent crime on a personal level and I’m very aware of the necessity for Prisons and Jails.
    IF our society were to make a sustained multi generational effort to improve things I suspect we would see significantly less violent crime.
    Good luck with that, I’ll keep my 1911 handy.

  2. Justin

    I read a book called Why They Kill a few years back. It’s about the findings of this one sociologist. His theory is that violent criminals are made violent by a socialization process, by which they come to see themselves as violent. The author treats his study like it’s golden plates delivered by god himself, but his system makes a bit of sense.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hey, if you think those are bad, Raine has an example of a guy who tried to kill himself and put a crossbow bolt through the part of the brain that mediates a lot of this stuff… and came out of it perpetually cheerful and positive, although prone to make inappropriate jokes. Filter that through the surgeon’s certainty that “to cut is to cure” and the “right” intervention for, say, Lars Breivik is obvious! No civil liberties implications there!

    2. Y.

      You’re confusing several things. Lysenkoism was a pseudo-scientific politically enforced approach to genetics which was fraudulent from start to finish.

      Eugenics is based on well-established and entirely correct principles of Mendelian genetics. Of course, it’s widespread application was and is hampered by various commie blank-slate notions and overall lack of dedication towards the fate of our species.

      Nevertheless, once pre-natal genetic engineering and/or embryo selection becomes practical and affordable, I expect everyone, including most catholics, to jump on the bandwagon. After all, parents want the best for their children so making sure they end up free of genetic diseases and with advantageous genes makes perfect sense.

      No matter how outraged you or other wooly-headed dogmatists might be about eugenics, it’s basically happening, because at present, in the US, the smartest men have the most children, statistically speaking.

      Also, assortative mating at universities and workplaces is basically eugenics. If a doctor married his nurse, his children would be less likely to become doctors themselves, as intelligence regress to the mean of one’s ancestors. If a doctor marries a fellow doctor, or a scientist a fellow scientist, it’s much more likely their progeny are going to start off their lives much better off.

      The few beneficiaries of actual eugenics( about 200 kids courtesy of Robert K.Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice), in the US seem to be quite happy with their situation and are doing pretty well.

  3. Kirk

    OK, I am not a smart man, and it’s been awhile since I took any form of statistics instruction. A long while.

    That said, if a marker for a given behavior is only 10% meaningful, in terms of that behavior actually being demonstrated by the individual possessing it, isn’t that statistically meaningless? It certainly is practically meaningless, particularly when we don’t really know what the real prevalence of that marker might be in the general population. I mean, how the hell do you assess “maternal rejection”, for example? The subject may demonstrate some markers for that, as in having been given up to the state as an infant, but what about all the other kids whose rejections weren’t captured in that data? I’m sure there are plenty of kids whose mothers rejected them, but whose behavior never rose to the level where the state intervened. Hell, I’m related to a couple of them by marriage in the extended family.

    This is one additional reason I think these so-called “social scientists” ought to be branded as quacks–They take these little discoveries of theirs, which when you dig into the actual sourcing of the numbers they used are usually highly questionable, and build castles in the air with them. From whence we make social policy, believing that these “eminent” scientists can’t possibly be wrong. I look back over the last few centuries where we’ve listened to these jackasses, and I don’t see a hell of a lot of success with any of this “Let’s fix criminals…” BS.

    The biggest problem I see with much of this sort of thing is that when you go to look at the numbers in the raw form, the conclusions reached usually amount to a complete fraud. Just like with “climate science”, they start with an assumption, and then gather evidence to “prove” it, ignoring anything to the contrary that they run into. I’ve got an acquaintance who’s an actual honest-to-God actuarial statistician, and every time he’s gone in to look at a lot of this stuff that’s hit the mainstream, he finds nothing but howling errors in the math. You’d be absolutely shocked to discover just how many of these things are constructed on the basis of mathematical errors, some of which almost have to be deliberate in order for them to have gotten past any kind of peer review. One of the really interesting things he pointed out to me was that while his work for the insurance/financial industries all had to be heavily reviewed and cross-checked by other statisticians, almost none of the people “doing science” that he’d reviewed ever even bothered having a real statistician on staff to verify the math. Instead of having an actual specialist overlooking the numbers, they do it themselves, and damn few of them really know what they’re doing. Some of the horror stories he told me that he’d run into doing what amounted to “forensic statistics” in the pharmaceutical industry were absolutely bone-chilling. There’s a lot of stuff in the medical world that’s only a glossy pamphlet away from witch-doctery, to tell the honest truth–The supposed efficacy of quite a few treatment regimes and medicines are based on some awfully dodgy numbers, when you go digging into them.

    So, while this gentleman may have found some interesting trivia, when you go to actually try to make use of it in practical, every-day world of human affairs? It’s ‘effing useless to the point of criminal. How many actually harmful fads like the use of lobotomy and euthanasia have been based on similar BS, over the years?

    One of the biggest problems I see with modern science and society is that we have no mechanism for holding these assholes responsible when they come up with this bullshit. Just like that doctor in the UK who got the ball rolling on the anti-vaccination movement, how much harm have these frauds perpetrated, over the years? How many lives are ruined, because some academic weirdo wanted to validate some cockamamie theory? Or, as in the doctor who perpetrated the vaccination fraud, wanted to benefit from their fraud financially?

    Once upon a time, I thought that the general thread of anti-intellectualism in American life was a horrible thing, and something holding us back from a better world. Now? I think it may well be the only saving grace for our culture and society–These self-appointed “intellectual elites” have no sense of accountability or responsibility at all, and utterly fail to self-police themselves. I see a lot of what passes for “intellectual thought and culture” in this country, and I want nothing at all to do with it. Call me an unreconstructed redneck hick, please–If you dare use the term “intellectual”, I’ll cheerfully knock your teeth out for the insult to both my intelligence and integrity.

  4. Eric

    C’mon, man! I come here for a sanity break when I can’t read any more of this kind of stuff, and look how you repay a loyal reader!

    Sorry, being a grad student in Criminology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
    The most current reasonable theory that explains everything is that people are born with traits that fall along a bell curve, with one end being Ted Bundy and the other end Amal Clooney. They are then exposed to environmental and experiential factors that either enhance or subvert those traits. After all, they got those traits from somewhere, and they generally grow up among the people that gave them those traits, and others who also inherited them. After marinating in this social/environmental/genetic stew for 15 or so years, they end up with more or less the personality they’re going to have for life without major intervention. When that personality meets the opportunity to commit a crime, you either get a criminal or you don’t.

    I’m sure you’re seen it way more than I have. Take two kids with traits predisposing them to athletic ability, impulsive behavior and aggression. One is dead or in prison by the time he’s 25. The other one excels at Recruit Training, Airborne, RASP and saves a bunch of his fellow soldiers. More often than not, it’s socialization that makes the difference, not genetics. I think we all know that we can’t legislate either one.

    The really scary thing is this – how many generations does it take to start seeing “positive” genes become regressive in an environment where the negative genes dominate the breeding cycle? Why would a society encourage isolating the people who exhibit these genes into closed-loop subcultures where they aggressively breed out “positive” genes in favor of “negative” ones?

    It’s questions like this that have led me to the conclusion that the main difference between Criminology and Social Work is “hope for the human race”.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hah. Sorry, Eric. To a lay reader (my grad degree is an MBA, which makes me pig-ignorant w/r/t social sciences), Raine is really interesting stuff. He describes so many studies in the footnotes (and his perch at Penn is high enough) that these ideas have to be pretty mainstream, or at least a strong subcurrent, in the current academy. Baron-Cohen (not the comedian, his dad) has written on how diminished empathy has both positive and negative aspects, and how in healthy people suppression of empathy is variable and situation- or task-based (“I can’t listen to you complain right now, Suzy, I have to finish this!” or “…the game is on!”), while in sociopaths or criminals (as well as some non-criminals such as autistics) it’s permanently suppressed — he never considers Suzy’s point of view even as he’s beating the living daylights out of her.

      Raine traces such behavior to damage and/or maldevelopment of certain brain structures (front ventral cortex), and (as a Crim student this name should ring a bell) goes partway to rehabilitate the reputation of Lombroso, minus the racial angle, of course.

      1. Eric

        Oh, Lombroso, you crazy racist ba$tard…but he’s still beat by Gall and the “let me feel the bumps on your head and tell you if you will be a criminal” phrenology craze of the Victorian era. You hit it right on the head – we CAN predict who is going to be a violent criminal with pretty decent accuracy, but once that prediction zeros in on the wrong demographic people get really uncomfortable.

        Man, what I wouldn’t give to have the head for figures that would have led to an MBA. I guess I can blame my ancestors or something. All I aspire to at this point is to try and inject some common sense into prosepective cops. Barring that, I’m going to find a big rock and push it up a hill every day.

        Raine is pretty awesome. If you want to see some granola-huffing hippies with their panties in a bunch, check out the one-star reviews on Amazon. Every one of them is “well, yeah, the science is solid, but he’s not allowed to think these things, because, RACISM!”

        Thanks for the tip on this book, and the island of sanity.

        1. Hognose Post author

          My favorite dead end of criminology was Bertillonage. I think of that every time I see some idjit presentation on biometrics.

          1. Kirk

            Take a look at the house of cards that our fingerprint system consists of, sometime. There’s some verrrrry dodgy science underneath all of that, especially when it comes to coding the prints for digital work. Remember that poor bastard in Portland, OR that they pegged for the Madrid bombings? That was partially based on poorly digitized prints, from what I understand.

            Hell, even DNA evidence comes into question, when you consider such phenomenon as genetic chimeras. We still don’t know what the prevalence of those are, in the general population. It’s entirely possible that we’ve freed people based on the false assumption that the tissue we took from their cheeks with a buccal swab represented the same tissues we used as evidence from the crime scene. As it is, a rapist who had a different set of germ-line cells in his reproductive organs might very well be uncatchable if we keep on looking for him using they typical screening techniques. And, imagine the issues for identifying MIA and body parts, if the servicemember in question is a chimera. You’ve got a leg, sure, but how are you going to ID it if the cells in it are from a different line than the ones in their mouth?

            On top of that, we have the issues that come from poor lab technique by the forensics people. I’m not sure I’d accept anything less than double-blind ID from two independent labs on a capital case, to be quite honest. The stats on these things are horrifying.

      1. Kirk

        I’d love to know what it is about my writing that triggers that thing. I’m almost on the verge of developing a bit of a persecution complex about it.

  5. Y.

    What if free will and bad choices aren’t the only reasons some criminals come to this?

    What is this ‘free will’ thing you speak of? It’s a not really coherent concept, one that plays fast and loose with causality, furthermore, many experiments have shown that the conscious decision to do something happens after the unconscious has decided on the course of action.

    This squares neatly with the observation that people are generally rationalizing, not rational agents, and decisions are made emotionally and then explained away by ‘reason’.

  6. MrApple

    I would say that drugs, income inequality, a sense of entitlement, and a general presence of evil cause crime.

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