Every year or so for nearly a decade, Fox Butterfield of The New York Times has written a story puzzling over what to him was a paradox: As the rate of violent crime went down, the prison population went up.
He should have paid more attention to the late Marvin Wolfgang of the University of Pennsylvania, "the most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world," according to the British Journal of Criminology.
In a groundbreaking study in 1972, professor Wolfgang examined the records of 9,945 males born in Philadelphia in 1945. Just 627 were chronic offenders, but they committed more than two-thirds of violent crimes, including all the murders.
For each offense for which they were arrested, they got away with eight to 11 other crimes, these chronic offenders said in interviews. When caught, they weren't punished much. If these "Dirty Seven Percenters" had been sent to prison for just a year after their third offense, there would have been 7,200 fewer serious crimes in Philadelphia, Mr. Wolfgang calculated.
Subsequent studies here and in Europe have also found that roughly 7 percent of the male population commits about two-thirds of violent crimes.
It never seemed to occur to Mr. Butterfield that crime went down because more criminals were being locked up. But at least he acknowledged the facts, and puzzled over them.
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza killed 26 people, 20 of them children, in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Some elite journalists, in their advocacy of gun control in the wake of that horror, have abandoned all pretense of fairness and objectivity.
They call for a "national dialogue" on gun control. For many, this consists of saying nasty things about those who disagree with them. (The National Rifle Association should be declared a terrorist organization; membership forbidden, wrote Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul in what he called a "madder-than-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore" rant.)
If journalists today were more like Mr. Butterfield, they'd puzzle over "paradoxes" like these:
• Rates of violent crime are highest in communities with strict gun control laws, according to economist John Lott, formerly of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. When the law-abiding are permitted to carry concealed handguns, crime rates drop.
• After a federal ban on "assault weapons" was imposed, there was a surge in mass shootings.
• All but one mass shooting in the last 50 years has taken place where firearms are expressly forbidden.
But few elite journalists care much about the facts. (So what if the rate of violent crime has plunged, said CNN anchor Don Lemon as he called for more gun control.) The "animating passion" of these journalists is "moral posturing," said Washington Post columnist Peter Wehner. "It doesn't really matter to them which laws are most (and least) effective."
But if we want to prevent future Newtowns, the facts must matter to us.
Gun-control measures fail because they punish the law-abiding when it is the "Dirty Seven Percenters" who commit most gun crimes.
The violent crime rate has fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1980, chiefly because more of the Seven Percenters are now behind bars. But the number of mass shootings increased from 18 in the 1980s to 87 in the 2000s chiefly because:
• Mass shooters tend to be mentally ill, not career criminals. It was much easier 30 years ago to commit the potentially violent to state mental institutions.
• The glorification of violence in movies, video games and rap music has a profound effect on those who have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
• The massive coverage the news media accords to their evil deeds gives shooters the notoriety they crave.
Massacres happen where firearms are forbidden because the shooters know no armed citizen will cut their murder spree short.
Politicians like gun-control laws, because passing them gives voters the impression they're doing something about gun violence when they're really not. But a false sense of security is worse than no security. And when we punish the innocent, too little is done to curb the depredations of the guilty.
Why do liberals prefer moral preening to solutions? I'll take up this question in a future column.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1476).