Saturday, January 3, 2009

In the summer of 2008, police in the District set up military-style checkpoints to stop vehicles without a “legitimate purpose” from entering the city’s Trinidad neighborhood. It was a bold attempt to stop the murders and violent crimes plaguing the area.

During this month’s inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, that same police force is already warning it will not be able to provide adequate protection to revelers taking advantage of extended drinking hours at bars and nightclubs throughout the city.

In 2002, when Shelley Parker discovered the Capitol Hill home she had recently bought was located on a block where men gathered to drink beer and possibly sell drugs, she got a dog for protection, installed a security camera and joined an anti-crime patrol. These actions earned her taunts and death threats from the men and vandalism to her home and car. Seeking advice on protecting herself, a police officer told Ms. Parker to get a gun. This was unhelpful, since most gun ownership in Washington was illegal.

Guns are often used to commit violent crimes, but might they also be an answer for cities suffering from crime? St. Louis Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe thinks so, and suggests citizens arm themselves. The Associated Press quotes him as saying: “The community has to be ready to defend itself, because it’s clear the economy is going to get worse, and criminals are getting more bold.”

Mr. Troupe notes that a St. Louis district police commander told him that “there was nothing he could do to protect us and the community… that he didn’t have the manpower.” Like Washington, St. Louis has an unacceptably high crime rate. With ten being the least safe, St. Louis and Washington both earn a rating of eight regarding “violent crime” on the Sperling’s BestPlaces data analysis website. The national average is three.

It’s clear that something must be done, and current methods aren’t working. Peace and justice are only as strong as people’s will and power to maintain it. A prospective criminal must be presented with fearsome consequences or crime will flourish. But so many police forces are overwhelmed and incarceration is not always an effective deterrent. Prison these days is just as likely to provide “street cred” as it is to induce shame. It makes many criminals more hardened and more sophisticated in their methods. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.

Crime thrives in the vacuum created by insufficient law enforcement and deterrence. That is why it’s time that law-abiding citizens exercise their constitutional right to arm themselves.

Kennesaw, Ga. actually passed a law in 1982 requiring households to have a gun. The city’s crime rate fell drastically afterwards. There were 55 house burglaries in the year before the law, for example, but 26 the year after and only 11 several years later. In 2007, Family Circle magazine ranked Kennesaw one of the top-ten cities in America for families. With such laws on the books and an active citizenry, prospective criminals have to weigh whether his potential misdeeds are worth putting his life at risk.

What about Ms. Parker? She sued the D.C. government for the right to own a gun. This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with her and struck down the city’s gun ban.

As Alderman Troupe’s call to arms was being reported on news programs across the country, a lesser-known story circulated in St. Louis — the shooting death of a 22-year-old police officer named Norvelle Brown.

While such tragedy often precedes calls for fewer guns, the better response is for law-abiding citizens to work hard at promoting and nurturing good in their community, as well as being willing to stop evil, even if it is found at the end of a gun.

Stephen Roberts is a research associate for the Project 21 black leadership network and seminary graduate.

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