Crack, Guns and Murder Rates


The 1980s crack epidemic created a vicious spike in homicides in major cities across the United States. As the epidemic faded, so did the street killings. While the murder rate went down for all races, however, it stayed persistently high for one demographic group: young black males. Seventeen years after the arrival of crack in a given city, homicide rates among young black males remained 70% higher than they had been beforehand.

So concludes a newly published study, “Guns and Violence: The Enduring Impact of Crack Cocaine Markets on Young Black Males,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“The long run effects of this increase in violence are large,” write the authors William N. Evans, Timothy J. Moore, and Craig Garthwaite. We attribute nearly eight percent of the murders in 2000 to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets. Elevated murder rates for younger black males continue through to today and can explain fully one tenth of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.”

For a work of economics, the driest of the social sciences, this study makes fascinating reading. While the authors themselves do not extrapolate their findings to broader public policy debates, others almost certainly will do so. The study illuminates the causes of black violence in places as disparate as Chicago (66 shot, 12 killed in a recent weekend) and Richmond (five people shot at a Shockoe Bottom restaurant over the weekend). It does not fit easily with liberals’ white oppression/black victimization narrative. Nor does it give any comfort to conservatives’ people-kill-people/guns-don’t-kill-people narrative.

Reality is complex. Ideologically driven narratives do violence to reality. Our job as informed citizens is to fathom those complexities. And this study is a good place to start. Here follow some highlights of the study.

The United States has seen a 25-year decline in its murder rate. Scholars have advanced a variety of theories to explain it — the legalization of abortion, the birth dearth and declining percentage of young males in the population, increased imprisonment rates, changes in police strategies, better emergency medicine, a decline in teen births, and the removal of lead from gasoline. The main flaw in these theories, suggest Evans et al is that they fail to explain the differing experiences of demographic sub-groups: “Young black males in the United States have failed to enjoy a long-run decline similar to other demographic groups, including older black males.”

Between 1968 and 1984 older and younger black males had remarkably similar murder rates. The rates diverged sharply after 1984. The murder rate for young black males roughly doubled by 1993, peaking at 164 murders per 100,000 population. While their murder rate fell to half the peak six years later, it declined only slightly thereafter. As a result, in 2015 the murder rate for young black males was 23 percent higher than the rate in 1984. By contrast, the murder rate of older black males fell by 54%.

The murder rate among whites likewise surged between 1984 and 1992 (though from a lower base and by a smaller percentage). Unlike the experience of young black males, the murder rate for young white males continued to decline throughout the 2000s.

Here is the authors’ explanation:

The daily experiences of young black males were fundamentally altered by the emergence of crack cocaine markets in the United States. … The diffusion of guns both as a part of, and in response to, these violent crack markets permanently changed the young black males’ rates of gun possession and their norms around carrying guns.

Large-scale cocaine traffic entered the United States in the early 1980s, driven by the Latin American drug cartels. Initially, the drug was expensive, making it unaffordable to lower-income populations. But the innovation of cooking cocaine with baking soda and water, allowing it to cool and harden so it could be broken into “rocks” that could be smoked, expanded the market. A single dosage could be sold profitably for as little as $2.50, which lower-income Americans could afford.

Unlike powder cocaine, which tended to be sold discretely in private locations between dealers and customers who had pre-existing business relationships, crack was sold frequently in small doses between dealers and customers had made no pre-existing contacts — in open-air markets. The nature of the crack market put a premium on certain geographic locations. Drug dealers began using violence to defend their turf from competitors.

As crack dealing spread from the original cocaine depots of Miami, New York and Los Angeles to smaller cities, violence spread with it. Crack arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1985 and in Hampton Roads in 1987, according to data in the article’s appendix. (Crack came to Richmond, situated on the crack highway of Interstate 95, about the same time.) Murder rates soared. Killings were so prevalent in Richmond that the city became notorious as a “murder capital” of the U.S. Everywhere it went, crack changed local attitudes toward guns. Write Evans et al:

The violence from crack markets was not limited solely to its participants. While organized crack markets were primarily run by young black males, the majority of black males avoided participation in these illicit activities. … Instead, their close proximity to friends and acquaintances involved in the drug trade exposed them to increased risk of violence, a fact that encouraged many to carry guns.

When young men carried guns, they were tempted to use them when they get into altercations. Youth violence became “decoupled” from drug and gang activity, spilling over into more routine interactions such as bar fights and domestic quarrels.

(There are direct parallels between violence in America’s inner cities and the West Virginia coalfields of the 1900s, ’10s, and ’20s. Rates of gun ownership were exceedingly high among the Appalachian mountaineers, and to a lesser extent the migrant blacks, who worked in the coal mines. Drugs were not a problem then, but moonshine was. Newspapers accounts are full of tales of fatal arguments, mostly shootings, mostly after altercations involving young men. I suspect that the murder rate was comparable to what we see in inner cities today.)

After several horrific years, crack-related violence receded. There are a number of theories why. Popularity of the drug declined, and so did the number of dealers. Alternatively, as drug markets matured, dealers worked out non-violent ways to maintain their turf. Similarly, the proliferation of cell phones moved much of the crack business off the street and behind closed doors. While crack-related killings declined, young black men did not give up their guns. And the large number of guns increased the lethality of non drug-related disputes. Young black males’ rate for murder of family members and intimate partners remained double of what it would have been had the trends followed the path of older black males. Suicide rates for young black males also remained persistently high.

“The combined evidence of a sustained increase in gun suicide rates, an increase in the share of all murders attributed to young black male offenders, and the widespread increase in murder rates across relationship types provide evidence of firearms as the mechanism driving the persistently higher murder rate for young black males,” the authors conclude.  “The additional exposure to violence stemming from the emergence of crack cocaine markets has had a meaningful impact on the longevity of black males in the United States.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Several thoughts emanate from a reading of this study.

First, it’s impossible to deny the strong connection between the prevalence of firearm ownership and gun violence. The authors hit upon an obvious truth that goes AWOL during much of the discussion about guns: When everyone else is armed and there is violence all around you, you’re more likely to pack heat for self protection. If you get into a fight and have a gun, you’re more likely to use it. The prevalence of gun own ownership does increase the lethality of altercations.

But some programs to curb gun violence, such as gun buyback programs, can be hopelessly naive. If people feel threatened by violence, they’re not going relinquish their firearms. However, once the violence subsides and people feel more secure, gun buyback programs might be useful. By reducing gun ownership, such programs might reduce the lethality of routine disputes and help reduce the murder rate.

Second, the article both undermines and supports the narrative that harsh laws punishing crack cocaine are racist. Americans — especially those living in the inner cities who were exposed to it, mostly African-Americans — were shocked and frightened by the explosion in crack-related violence in the 1980s. The enactment of laws to suppress that crack dealing was entirely justified. While black males were arrested in disproportionate numbers, making them victims in the eyes of social justice warriors, homicide victims also were disproportionately black. An indifference to the surge in black crime victims would have been described as racist. Victim-mongers assuredly would have advanced the argument that cocaine use wasn’t seen as a problem as long as the crime victims were black, not white.

Now that the crack-murder epidemic has subsided significantly, however, it may be worth taking another look at the laws. The ACLU argues that crack is no more addictive or dangerous than powder cocaine and that the draconian punishments for crack contribute to the mass incarceration of black males. I’m not totally convinced by the ACLU’s logic, but this article persuades me that the subject is worth exploring.

Third, there are implications for the way we look at life-expectancy numbers of blacks and whites. Many assume that a black-white gap in longevity reflects the underlying racism of our institutions, in particular of the health care system. But the crack epidemic, engineered by Latin American drug cartels and exploited by  black street dealers, cannot be blamed on white racism. One cannot logically assert that draconian anti-crack laws are racist and then turn around and say that the lingering after-effects of the crack epidemic upon black life expectancy are also the result of racism.

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11 responses to “Crack, Guns and Murder Rates

  1. Hey, don’t young black mothers do Crack too? Where is the murder rate of young black mothers?

    Crack is a symptom, not a cause of murder rate among young black males. The cause is that young black males are forced to live in a sick culture without dads. These kids through no fault of their own are forced to survive in nihilistic tribal violence ridden streets, without hope or escape, places that literally kill them.

    Now its happening to poor whites. Opioids kill them, its suicide, their only way escape their own growing sick white culture, their own alien streets of despair, stripped of their culture and dads too.

    This has little to do with either crack or opioids, or discrimination.

    It’s got everything to do with our Sick American Culture, cooked up and fueled by our corrupt political system, and its institutional allies run by the elites who are working so hard to carve us all up into tribes fighting each other while living on our own reservations that they want to control, own, and milk.

  2. re: “crack”… we’re hopelessly living in the past here… “crack” is not the only drug – opiates like fentanyl are much more the issue now days…

    and while we’re at it:

    ” the narrative that harsh laws punishing crack cocaine are racist. Americans — especially those living in the inner cities who were exposed to it, mostly African-Americans — were shocked and frightened by the explosion in crack-related violence in the 1980s. The enactment of laws to suppress that crack dealing was entirely justified. While black males were arrested in disproportionate numbers,”

    where is that similar level of “justified” criminal enforcement for the users of opioids and fentanyl?

    The problem in the cities that we choose to focus on – while we ignore the opioids in the rural – is very much the same problem as we had with the Italians and the Mob back in the day when they were killing each other willy nilly to see who would control the drugs…and other illegal products and services.

    Bottom line – you have a lot of people who don’t have jobs and they can make money selling drugs – it’s don’t matter if they are purple, pink , black or blue… and talking about color in that context is really not “learning” much.

    People use drugs. People who don’t have jobs – can make money selling drugs.. When there are “competitors” – there is gun-play.

    The way we got rid of the Mob Killing was to legalize a drug called alcohol and take over the numbers racket and renaming it the “lottery”.

    The way we are saying we need to fix the opioid problem especially when it’s white rural folks , is to “understand” “addiction” and “help” them – as opposed to city blacks , is rounding them up and throwing them in prison.

    and those that want to “understand” the city black “problem” – are social justice warriors and liberals…

    • “Where is that similar level of “justified” criminal enforcement for the users of opioids and fentanyl?”

      Larry, tell me how many people are getting murdered in turf wars over opioids and fentanyl, and I’ll talk about the level of justified criminal enforcement of dealers, not users.

    • Much of the impetus for harsher laws on crack cocaine than on powdered cocaine came from black leaders. See Larry Elders’ column. https://townhall.com/columnists/larryelder/2018/06/14/if-tough-antidrug-laws-are-racist-blame-black-leaders-n2490455

      Just because the dirt bag MSM won’t write about it doesn’t make it true. This is probably a good time to revisit sentencing but we ought to have an honest discussion.

      We also need to take a hard look at the entertainment industry and its impact on desensitizing young males to the impacts of violence. Oh, that’s right, many of the principals give money to Democrats. Cross that off as a possible cause.

  3. It’s true there is less competition in selling drugs in the rural areas -but it’s not that different than the Mob in the cities in past verses the moonshiners in the country.

    The difference is that the Italian Mobsters have been replaced by blacks in many cities but the gun violence is not that different than when James Hoffa was running things. It’s about people who don’t have jobs – don’t have an education – doing what they can to make a living…and the easiest path is drugs because there is a ready market – but it’s inherently a dangerous business – just as it was back when the while Italians were running it.

    90% of the murders are due to drug trafficking – as opposed to blacks just killing blacks for the pure hell of it which is the underlying narrative here.

    And again -when we say we want to better understand the problem in the cities – folks are labeled liberals and social justice warriors but when we look at the drug problem in the rural -we hear about “understanding the problem” and “helping” people as opposed to locking them up for “possession” .

  4. What’s the racial, economic or drug angle on the killing this weekend in Jacksonville at a video game convention, for Pete’s sake? The acceptance, promotion, glorification and reinforcement of violence as a way of settling disputes is indeed a deep cultural sickness that crosses many lines, and as Reed points out is pouring dollars into the pockets of entire industries (including the gun industry first of all but also the music and gaming industries.) Future sociologists will look back and laugh themselves silly at us for being so blind to miss what is right in front of our faces (or pouring into our kid’s ears.) Perhaps the culture of violence is stronger with those who have blown their chances at an education, but first and foremost this is pure psychology – this behavior is learned and reinforced.

    • You’re right on target, Steve.

      And this black on black crime in big cities is only one iteration, among many, on how we, as a culture actively work alongside our institutions to destroy our own children, whether they be black or white or brown, or rich or poor, or in between.

      For example, witness:

      1/ the recent horrific decline in immigrant Hispanic kids’ learning in Virginia schools that Jim brought to our attention her a few days ago, or
      2/ the recent assault on girls Lacrosse team at Virginia Tech, or
      3/ the race riots cooked by Charlottesville’s leaders in 2016/ 2017, or
      4/ the demonization of Frat. boys at UVA cooked up by the vast array of gross lies called the Jackie scandal, and
      4/ the concurrent mass hysteria of young women at UVA cooked up by the O’bama White House election Campaign as aided an abetted by UVA leaders.

      All these assaults on our children and their futures are described in detail here on Bacon’s Rebellion. For example, see April 6, 2018 article and commentary posted here and found at:

      https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/want-proof-of-the-decline-of-western-civilization/

  5. just to keep things real – neither Chicago nor the US for that matter have the highest murder rates:

    the bigger problem in my opinion is folks viewing the murders in a racial context in the US – why? In doing that – we conflate things and we get far far afield from truly understanding the underlying factors… we mock the effort to find out and instead just want to attribute it to some kind of racial thing… It’s just dumb.

  6. To Steve’s point, studies have shown that violent crime rates went up in lots of countries about 7 years after the start of widespread television viewing. Who knows what the impact of game culture and smartphones will turn out to be?

  7. Izzo… are those studies credible? We’ve had people killing each other for centuries without TV…

    But I have a question for folks. If drugs were freely available in places like Chicago… would the murder rate go down?

    I’m NOT advocating freely-available drugs per se… I’m just asking if it is the illegality of them that attracts criminals and violent crime?

    Sure seems like Prohibition played a big role in gang crime.. killings, corruption, extortion… in the 1930’s and a lot of it went away until heroin and cocaine and now fentanyl and other modern-day opioids have come to the fore.

  8. The logical flaw I see is assuming that the decline of crack sales is a proxy for the decline of illegal drug sales.

    Jim’s narrative is that the rise in crack caused a rise in gun violence. However, when the crack epidemic subsided the gun violence in the inner city did not subside. That assumes no replacement drugs made up for the reduction in crack. I question whether that’s accurate.

    Secondly, where does the heroin being used in suburban and rural areas come from? White preppy dealers working with Norwegian drug cartels? Isn’t a large part of the logistics chain for heroin being used in the suburbs still based in the Latin American cartels importing through the inner cities? If so, doesn’t that continue to fuel inner city violence? Finally, where do suburban white people get their heroin? Local high school cheerleaders milling around in front of the local Starbucks? Or, do the white druggies end up going to the same corners where the crack was once the drug of choice?

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