Commentary: Why Detroit's New Police Chief Is Wrong on Gun Control

James Craig's recent statements reek of misinformation.

Posted: 01/06/2014 08:30 AM EST

"If more citizens were armed, criminals would think twice about attacking them." That was the splashy lead in Friday's Detroit News story about new police chief James Craig.

Craig, who served on the Los Angeles police force for 28 years, explained at a press conference on Thursday that it takes "an act of Congress" to get a concealed weapon permit in Los Angeles, and he compared that to his recent stint in Maine, where they freely distribute those permits. "I changed my orientation real quick," Craig told reporters. "Maine is one of the safest places in America. Clearly, suspects knew that good Americans were armed," he said.

Actually, it's not that simple, and Craig's statement reeks of misinformation. Yes, Portland, Maine, does have a lower murder rate than Los Angeles, but it actually registers a higher rate of rape, burglary and theft than LA. In fact, the crime rate for robbery, burglary, theft, and rape is higher in Portland than the national average, contradicting Craig's claim that Portland is one of the safest places in America.

Surely, there are fewer crimes in Portland than in Los Angeles, but that's largely a function of the vast difference in size. Portland has only 66,000 people while Los Angeles is a city of 3.8 million.

"I think at its core, his position is an emotional one, based on the idea that people feel safer when they have guns," Robyn Thomas, director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told the Detroit News. "But studies have shown more guns don’t deter crime," Thomas said.

Maybe Chief Craig, who seems to have some good ideas on community policing, is acting out of emotion too since he revealed last year that he had been nearly carjacked in Detroit. Still, it's one thing for people on the street to form inaccurate conclusions based on emotional responses. But it's another when an African-American police chief in the Blackest city in America comes to the same conclusion without all the facts.

Fortunately, Craig is not calling for Detroit to repeal its gun control laws, but his comments on gun ownership come at a time when the murder rate is actually dropping in many of the nation's biggest cities, including Detroit. Yes, despite some high-profile cases in the media the past year, the murder rate in Chicago actually dropped 17 percent, fell 25 percent in Philadelphia, 16 percent in Los Angeles and 20 percent in New York City, even with fewer stop-and-frisks. The murder rates in those cities haven't been that low since the 1960s.

Even in bankrupt Detroit, the number of murders fell from 386 in 2012 to 333 in 2013. And that's with the city's current gun control laws. Last year at this time, critics were blaming the city's gun control laws when Detroit's 2012 crime rate had spiked higher. But now that the crime rate has fallen with the same laws in place, will they blame the laws for the drop as well?

The truth is Chief Craig's comments on gun ownership sound perfectly logical until you examine them. Surely, criminals are probably less likely to attack someone who they know is armed. But is arming everyone really the solution or will there be unintended consequences? And is the presence of guns really the cause of the lower murder rate in Portland than in Detroit?

Despite what gun advocates claim, a recent international study of 27 developed countries found the United States had the highest rate of gun ownership per capita and, not surprisingly, the highest rate of gun-related deaths. This doesn't prove that guns need to be regulated but it does challenge the notion that guns make us safer.

Meanwhile, a U.S.-based study published last March found that the states with the most gun control laws had the least gun-related deaths. States like New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California had the most gun control laws and the lowest gun mortality rates. On the other hand, states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alaska had the least gun control laws and the highest gun mortality rates.

Which brings us back to Maine. The city of Portland is a small homogeneous, relatively well-educated community without many of the challenges facing big, urban, diverse populations like Detroit or Los Angeles, or even Cincinnati, where Chief Craig served before coming home to the Motor City.

Detroit, for example, is 90 percent Black and Latino, compared to 58 percent in Los Angeles and only 10 percent in Portland. The unemployment rate in Portland is only 5.3 percent, well below the national average. Compare that to 11.3 percent unemployment in Los Angeles and 17.7 percent in Detroit, and you realize that Detroit is a lot more similar to LA than its neighbor to the east.

What works in Maine won't necessarily work in Detroit. But too much of our public policy on guns and crime is based on fear instead of hope, and that needs to change. Part of what drives crime is joblessness, homelessness, and lack of educational and economic opportunity. If policy makers spent more time focusing on these issues instead of arming the citizenry, people wouldn't feel the need to own as many guns in the first place.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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