Crime control is arguably a prerequisite for many items on the progressive policy agenda. Want people to support higher immigration? Reassure them that foreign gangs are not going to reassemble on American streets. Want people to move to dense, walkable urban neighborhoods where their carbon footprint will be smaller? Those neighborhoods won’t be very attractive if there are many criminals walking around, too. And of course, people are most likely to support a reformist criminal justice agenda when crime is low. If many people you know have been victimized, you tend to err on the side of keeping offenders in jail.
But it’s not just the progressive agenda that has benefited from the United States’ long secular decline in crime. In the wake of recent mass shootings, gun rights advocates have managed to block even overwhelmingly popular gun-safety measures, such as stiffer background checks. They’re able to do this because of a big gap in voter intensity: Gun owners are often single-issue voters, while most Americans care more about other issues, becoming interested in gun policy only in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like Newtown, Conn.
Shocking as they are, the intensity of our fear over mass shootings nonetheless wanes quickly, depleting the political impetus for gun control. And because such shootings are rare, those anxieties are infrequently renewed. Ordinary crime, on the other hand, happens all the time — and when it is pervasive, people worry about it constantly.
Notice that the 1994 crime bill included a federal ban on assault weapons that would be politically unthinkable today. But one can imagine that more legislators might find it a lot more thinkable — along with other measures regulating and restricting access to guns — if D.C. were still the “murder capital” of a country in the middle of an unprecedented crime wave.
Regardless of your view of gun laws, or immigration policy, it is clearly in everyone’s interest not to allow that to happen. In the 1990s, we became the national equivalent of those nervous parents, so overwhelmed by anxiety about crime that they were afraid to leave their children at college. If we don’t get our streets back under control quickly, that could easily be our future as well as our past.