Question: What do the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have in common? Answer: The determination to stop New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg from having his way with guns. The NRA defends the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. The ACLU defends the Fourth Amendment’s constraints on “stop and frisk.” Between the two, guns will remain on the street and more people will die.
The numbers are irrefutable. Last year, 419 New Yorkers were murdered, mostly by gunfire. In 1992, the figure was 1,995. That works out to approximately four New Yorkers a day who were not killed by guns. Yes, crime has fallen across America, but nowhere has the drop approached New York City’s. Some of that is due to whiz-bang policing, computers and all that jazz. But some of it is due to stop and frisk. There are simply fewer guns on the street. (The New York Police Department estimates that in 1993, “as many as 2 million illegal guns were in circulation in New York City,” many of them imported from Virginia.)
Rightly or wrongly — a higher court will ultimately decide — the city’s stop-and-frisk program has collided with the Fourth Amendment’s injunction against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” More controversially, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin has ruled that the program is racial profiling at its most pernicious and that, too, is illegal. After all, of an incredible 4.4 million stops, an overwhelming number were of black or Hispanic men — and resulted in relatively few arrests. It did not seem to matter to the judge that an equally overwhelming number of both assailants and victims were also black and Hispanic men. Her gavel came down. The city was guilty.
It may well be. The issue before the court was not the effectiveness of stop and frisk but its constitutionality. I have zero faith in the impartiality of this particular judge — she seemed determined to embody the conservative stereotype of a liberal, activist judge — but her reading of the Constitution is hardly bizarre. Repressive police measures can often depress crime, but at considerable cost to our civil liberties and our sense of community.
Still, the very same people who insist on an unforgiving interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and, more to my point, an unforgivably dense interpretation of racial statistics, wail when the same strict standard is applied to the Second Amendment. They use common sense to argue that the Founding Fathers could not have intended every George Zimmerman to stalk the night, packing heat. There were 11,078 people killed by guns in 2010 and an additional 19,392 used guns to commit suicide. This is hardly the militia that that Founding Fathers intended.
The same holds for racial profiling. The numbers are not proof of racism but of a lamentable fact. Black and Hispanic men are disproportionately stopped because they are disproportionally both the perpetrators of gun crime and their victims. The four persons a day that have not been killed by guns are statistically not white. They are black or Hispanic.
Mike Bloomberg is driven by metrics, and his numbers are generally pretty good. The city’s crime rate is way down. Park acreage is way up. Vast sections of the city have been spruced up, huge numbers of housing units have been added, bike lanes have multiplied — and smoking, I think, is punishable by death. Much of the good stuff is a consequence of lower crime rates. The mayor can rattle off streets that have come back to life — stores, restaurants, housing and all of them paying taxes. Reducing crime saves lives. It also brings in money. New Yorkers may be tired of Bloomberg after three terms, but he has, I contend, done a bang-up job.
His major failure, though, may well turn out to be his war on guns. He has put his money into defeating pro-gun Democratic members of Congress and he adamantly defends stop and frisk, especially from the charge of racism. His national anti-gun initiative has largely gone nowhere and now his stop-and-risk program may be coming to an end. In both cases, Bloomberg has failed to appreciate the political dimension of what he was attempting. The conservative political culture adores guns and the liberal culture of a city that has grown accustomed to a low crime rate endorses a simplistic notion of racism. Both sides have, so to speak, stuck to their guns — and, as a result, more people will die.
Richard Cohen’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.