Recently, Matt Yglesias published a post at his Slow Boring Substack titled “The illegally carried handguns are the problem.” Unlike most commentary on guns and crime, Yglesias smartly identifies several of the unstated or overlooked conflicts in current gun politics, particularly as they exist within the broader left-of-center policy sphere of decarceration and reduced reliance on policing. He also correctly explains why the focus on “assault weapons” is not a serious solution to reducing the number of annual American gun deaths in any meaningful way. Yet, for all its very welcome thoughtfulness, Yglesias misses a few key points, particularly the policy intersection between guns and policing implied in the headline.

Perhaps the most pervasive problem with the gun policy debate is that control advocates treat all gun deaths as the consequence of the same problem: firearm possession. Yglesias, again rightly distinguishes between illegal and legal possession, focusing on how the former are typically far more dangerous than the latter when it comes to street violence and homicides, but there are other relevant distinctions that should inform how lawmakers tackle gun and broader public safety policy. Workable solutions to public safety must move beyond a myopic focus on guns.

Most gun deaths are self-inflicted

For example, it is important to distinguish between gun deaths and gun violence or gun crimes. Too often, they are used interchangeably in policy and media discussions, yet the distinction is crucial to understanding what number—and which populations—of gun deaths and injuries any given policy is looking to address.

The vast majority of gun deaths in America are by suicide: lawful gun owners taking their own lives. This is a growing public policy problem—particularly considering the increase among middle-aged and older white men—but it is not primarily a criminal issue, statutory prohibitions on suicide notwithstanding. While the police may become involved in a given situation, ultimately self-harm is an issue of mental health and overall well-being, not criminal policy. Chronic or momentary desperation with access to firearms can be a tragic combination, but in a legal regime that permits and protects gun ownership, focusing solely on guns misses the forest for the trees.

Reducing the largest driver of gun deaths in the United States will require a more holistic public policy approach to deaths of desperation that must—for the foreseeable future, anyway—coexist in a policy world in which law-abiding American adults have access to firearms. The problem is particularly acute in red states. Unfortunately, such an approach is beyond the scope of this post, but it is a reality not enough policymakers and activists want to confront. Some sort of gun control may play a role in that effort, but the underlying problems of widespread personal anguish should not be swept under the rug. Indeed, given the suicidal endings of many mass shootings, improving the identification and interdiction of self-destructive desperation among the general public may also reduce the number of seemingly random homicidal rampages.

Police matter in preventing gun violence

Street violence is the most common type of gun homicide and the one police policy is most likely to affect. It is most prevalent in poor, minority enclaves in U.S. cities. As the national homicide rates plunged for almost two decades, homicide remained an acute problem in these areas, particularly among young Black men. Although the tough-on-crime commentators may never stop using “Black on Black crime” as a talking point to distract attention from unwarranted police violence, they are not entirely wrong when they complain that an appalling number of young Black men are killed every year in this country, most often by other young Black men.

In part because young Black men in urban ghettos know they are at higher risk of being shot and killed, many carry illegal guns for self-defense. This is neither an excuse nor a justification, but it is something that policymakers and local officials need to reckon with.

Obviously, illegal gun possession is bad. While some people carry for more nefarious purposes like murder, intimidation, and robbery, the presence of so many guns among young men—most of whom are untrained in firearm safety—is a recipe for disaster no matter what other problems are going on in their lives. Add to this the added problems of ghetto life, including poverty, poor education, lack of social support structures, a dearth of constructive activities or job opportunities, and violent gang culture all happening in a country awash in firearms, urban gun violence becomes not only explicable but virtually a foregone conclusion.

Rigorous evidence-based policing research shows that different approaches to crime and police patrol techniques can reduce crime in a city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. The Philadelphia foot patrol experiment is perhaps the most famous, but other “hot spot” policing has shown that targeted, visible patrol officers and similar interventions can reduce violent crime incidents. Newer research also suggests that police can make interventions in ways that accord with procedural justice—that is, with a focus on fairness for individuals—and thus reduce crime in ways that do not further antagonize the communities that need them most.

More arrests do not guarantee safer streets

But when police and commentators like Yglesias suggest increasing incarceration for carrying illegal guns, it is important to understand the practical problems with their proposal.

If a young person believes a gun will reduce their higher chances of being killed–however dubious the evidence may be–is an increased jail or prison sentence really an effective deterrent? Alive in prison for an extra year will usually be viewed as preferable to dead forever, particularly in urban areas in which someone serving jail time is not a particularly unusual event. Moreover, the preference for being “judged by 12 [jurors]” rather than “carried by six [pallbearers]” is a sentiment on both sides of the thin blue line.

If the hypothesis is that the more guns police take off the street will result in fewer homicides and shootings, recent data from D.C. are only partially helpful.  D.C. Metropolitan Police (MPD) confiscated 3,152 firearms in 2022, an increase of more than 800 recovered guns in 2021. While fewer people were killed in the District in 2022 than the previous year, national homicide rates also fell, hinting that issues other than local gun confiscation played a role. In either case, that those thousands of guns recovered did not prevent several hundred gun homicides suggests illegal possession is so widespread that it is beyond the capacity of increased confiscation and incarceration to control.

In his post, Yglesias laments that the relaxation of petty crime enforcement and the abandonment of “Broken Windows” policing has provided fewer opportunities to get illegal guns off the street. Admittedly, there may be something to the idea that police have been too lax in discouraging certain low-level criminal behavior since the pandemic started. In my own neighborhood, some individuals set up tables to sell goods almost certainly shoplifted from local retailers. Such tolerance for petty crime punishes local businesses and makes goods less available to the community. Such flagrant lawlessness ought to be curtailed.

That said, perhaps counterintuitively, arresting more people can provide more opportunities for serious crimes. As mentioned above, visible police presence is one of several proven deterrents to crime. Each arrest an officer makes requires a considerable amount of paperwork to be done back at the station house or precinct, ergo, the officer in that patrol service area is no longer on the street acting as a deterrent. In a world in which major city police departments complain about not having adequate staffing, there ought to be a compelling reason when officers leave their patrol areas; officers running someone in for drinking in public or selling loose cigarettes will rarely meet that standard. For such instances, police can issue civil infractions to deter minor violations, so long as local governments don’t start relying on such enforcement to pad municipal coffers as they did in Ferguson, Missouri.

Criminal enforcement is only one component of public safety

The best way to reduce gun violence must include both police reform and structural change. While no one thinks MPD’s gun confiscations prevented more than 3,000 homicides, it is probable that taking so many guns out of young men’s hands prevented at least a few tragedies. Police should not simply tolerate illegal gun possession–or other crimes, for that matter–but at the same time, policymakers must recognize the limits of relying solely on criminal enforcement to disarm young men at risk.

A recent working paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research shows that giving high-risk individuals in Chicago a job, social supports, and cognitive behavioral therapy reduced homicide victimization and arrest rates. (Previous research has shown that close proximity to homicide victims greatly increases the likelihood of falling victim to homicide, so when researchers talk about “high-risk” individuals, they don’t necessarily mean dangerous or violent ones.) The program is not a cure-all and comes with other caveats appropriate to socio-behavioral experiments–including potential scalability–but it reinforces the idea that providing individualized aid and constructive opportunities may make these neighborhoods and the young men in them safer.

Put simply, a safer environment is a bigger disincentive for illegal gun possession than arrests and incarceration. If young men feel safer in their community, there will be less reason to carry guns and risk incarceration for carrying them. More police in these areas will likely be part of any successful program, but one that is focused on improving community safety and not just increasing arrests. This will take coordination between different branches of city governments and local nonprofit organizations to identify high-risk individuals and protect them from falling victim to the cycles of violence that plague so many American cities.