Legislators, Don’t Forget: Virginia Has 4th Lowest Violent Crime Rate in Country

by James A. Bacon

In General Assembly action yesterday, Democrats spiked a slew of Republican bills to relax gun laws and debated a so-called “red flag” law that would allow authorities to remove firearms from persons deemed “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others.”

The operating supposition behind Democratic gun-control initiatives is that gun violence is a huge problem in Virginia. Given the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach municipal center last year, plus ongoing chronic violence in inner-city jurisdictions such as Richmond, Petersburg, and Portsmouth, it is understandable that people would harbor that perception.

But the reality is that Virginia is one of the least violent states in the country. To be specific, according to data published in USA Today, the violent crime rate in Virginia is 4th lowest of the 50 states. Only in three small, predominantly rural states in New England is the crime rate lower. Compared to other states with comparable demographics — racial/ethnic mix, concentrations of urban poverty, Southern culture, and the like — Virginia’s violent crime rate is startlingly low.

Perhaps it would behoove us as a Commonwealth to understand why we’re different and what we’re doing right before we run off and, driven by a hysterical national debate whipped up by national media who know nothing about Virginia, enact a passel of laws that may or may not be suited to the realities here in the Old Dominion.

I know, I know, ignorance never stopped the General Assembly from passing laws before, so it’s unrealistic to expect the new Democratic majority to acknowledge the limits of its knowledge and understanding any more than their Republic predecessors did.

But as citizens, we should ask: To what does Virginia owe its low rate of violent crime? Certainly not strict gun controls. The Cliffords Law Center, which is dedicated to preventing gun violence, publishes an annual gun law scorecard. Virginia rates a D. Maine, with the lowest violent crime rate in the country, rates an F, as does New Hampshire (3rd lowest). Vermont, second lowest, rates a D+. California, which rates an A, ranks 37th. Maryland, which rates an A-, ranks 40th. There is virtually no correlation between the strictness of gun-control laws and the rate of violent crime. If anything, some have argued, the correlation is negative.

So what public policies do make a difference? One possibility is the rate of incarceration — not for the population at large but of violent criminals. If bad guys are locked up inside jail, they aren’t committing crimes outside of jail. Among the low violent-crime states, Virginia has the highest rate of incarceration. Convinced that Virginia’s high prison population reflects institutional racism, Democratic legislators want to reduce the numbers. That approach may be entirely appropriate when it comes to decriminalizing non-violent crimes such as marijuana possession, which effects African-Americans disproportionately. But General Assembly Dems and the Northam administration want to extend leniency to so-called “geriatric” prisoners as young as 50, even if they have committed violent crimes.

Virginia also is notable for having the lowest prison recidivism rate in the country. Clearly, the Old Dominion is doing a better job — through prison policies and nonprofit efforts — of reintegrating prison inmates into mainstream society. That may be a contributor to the low violent crime rate. Instead of returning to their old criminal ways, convicts learn how to lead productive lives. It would seem worthwhile to dig deeper and find out more. Conceivably, we would get the most bang for the buck by focusing more resources on reducing recidivism.

Another angle worth looking at is to identify where the gun crimes are taking place. Violent crime is low to non-existent in most rural and suburban counties in Virginia. According to CountyHealthRankings.org, Bath County had a violent crime rate of 29 per 100,000 population during that period, while, at the other extreme, the rate was 631 per 100,000 in the City of Richmond. Should Richmond’s violent crime issues drive statewide policies that apply to Bath?

Violent gun crimes are primarily (though not exclusively) an urban phenomenon. Perhaps, instead of passing blanket laws affecting all citizens, we should be asking ourselves how the bad guys get guns. In many cases, I believe, they steal the guns — or buy guns from others who have stolen them. Perhaps we should focus efforts on tracking and reclaiming stolen guns.

I’m no expert on gun-control/gun-rights issues, and I don’t purport to know the answers. But I can observe the quality of debate taking place in Virginia, and it is extremely low. People are quoting national talking points and citing national data (if they cite data at all) and ignoring the factors that make Virginia distinct. We can do better.

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42 responses to “Legislators, Don’t Forget: Virginia Has 4th Lowest Violent Crime Rate in Country

  1. Two words the General Assembly/reporters/pundits should be required to research and know about:
    PROJECT EXILE.

    Also, there was a great study on violent crime nation-wide which showed the vast majority of violence occurred in a very small concentrated set of areas. The same is true in Virginia. 54% of US counties in 2014 had zero murders, 2% of counties have 51% of the murders [ https://crimeresearch.org/2017/04/number-murders-county-54-us-counties-2014-zero-murders-69-1-murder/ ]

    Also, no reporter has investigated this premise: Is gun related crime committed by up-to-that point law abiding citizens? or by those who have committed previous crimes? I can guess the answer.

    Address the problem —- criminals. Not law abiding citizens.

    Which brings me to the final point; not one reporter has asked any Democrat how outlawing in-door and out-door gun ranges will reduce gun crime.

  2. but what about this:

    ” Virginia earns bragging rights — as the best state for illegal gun trafficking”

    Excerpts:
    “There’s no limit to how many guns I can go buy from the store. I can go get 20 guns from the store tomorrow. . . . I can do that Monday through Friday. . . . They might start looking at me, but in Virginia, our laws are so little, I can give guns away.” That testimonial to Virginia’s lax gun laws was caught on a wiretap in a sweeping investigation of a gun-trafficking ring that operated up the Interstate 95 corridor from Virginia to New York. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday announced a 627-count indictment charging 24 people, some with violent criminal records and alleged ties to the Bloods street gang. Authorities recovered 217 guns, including assault weapons and a Thompson submachine gun, in a scheme that involved straw purchases of guns at retailers and gun shows in Virginia and their subsequent transport by car or bus to Manhattan and Brooklyn, where buyers paid $1,200 for a handgun and $2,200 for an assault weapon.

    “When you hear a trafficker boasting about the weak gun laws in Virginia, it is crystal clear that this needs to be addressed,” said acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, obviously frustrated about having to deal with the dangerous consequences of another state’s irresponsible gun laws. New York has strict gun-control laws but they are undermined when guns flow in unchecked from other states. And, as Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring pointed out to us, logic holds that guns that are so easily trafficked out of state also are falling into the hands of criminals in Virginia, making the public less safe and increasing the risks to law enforcement.

    Virginia had a law on the books for 19 years limiting gun purchases to one a month, but — despite its success in helping to curtail the illicit gun trade and an appeal from Virginia Tech families — it was repealed in 2012. Efforts to restore the limit — as well as enact other common-sense measures that have popular support, such as universal background checks — have been killed by a General Assembly that is captive to the gun lobby.

  3. Larry is abolutely right about the ‘out of state’ problem with gun sales in VA. When NY City first started to deal with the gun violence and passed laws I was living in CT. What NY found was that their restrictive laws had almost no effect because almost all the guns confiscated in shootings came from out of state.

    Given that, and the issue of ‘urban gun violence’, how about just licenses? You need a license to drive a car. Why not a license to own a gun? That would stop the cross state border sales if the gun owner sold guns on the black market.

  4. Good job jane and larry. Also, if the fbi hadn’t nailed the “base” white terrorists richmond could have been a blood bath. You know the fbi that jim bacon says is incompetent and biased?

  5. Yet, if we listen to the gun-rights folks – Virginia is all good , low crime, no problems and certainly no good reason to limit gun purchases, in fact, they portray it as the Dems coming to get your guns!

    This is so grossly irresponsible that it defies common sense and basic decency. Violent crime may be low in Virginia, but we are fueling violent crime in cities north of here.

    If we had a universal background check – we would be able to clearly see what guns were bought and sold and ended up in criminals hands.

    But the big lie goes on – that ONLY “law-abiding” folks are supposed to have guns and by definition if you are a criminal you’re not law-abiding – AND … there is no way we can keep those guns out of the hands of criminals. Nope, it just can’t be done and besides if we try, we take away 2nd amendment rights.

    I can only ask, once more, if the idea is that we really can’t keep “guns” out of the hands of bad guys, How come most of the bad guys have not been able to get their hands on an automatic weapon? What prevents them from that? Is it actually gun restrictions – that actually DO work?

  6. So, Jane and Larry are making the case for stricter control over gun sales. On the face of it, that’s not an unreasonable proposition. Two questions:

    (1)(a) What’s the data? How many people convicted of violent crimes in Virginia used illegally sold guns?
    (b) If illegal gun sales are, in fact, a contributor to violent crime in Virginia, is one possible solution stricter enforcement of existing laws?

    (2) Which bills in the General Assembly, and/or endorsed by Northam, address illegal gun sales?

    • come on James — we all know that facts get in the way of emotions.
      the real question — WHY aren’t criminals charged with the Federal crime of illegal use of guns in a each and every crime committed? that’s five years in a Federal penitentiary. PERIOD! no parole — far from home.

      and when criminals are in jail – they can’t commit more crimes [see New York’s no bail law recently].

      SEE FACTS:
      https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/831e/25a9b98a58520be80608b559ce11f3f0b53b.pdf = SEE GRAPH on page 432

      Arends, Ross. 2013. “Project Exile: Still the Model for Firearms Crime Reduction Strategies.” The Police Chief 80(11):56–59.

      Braga, Anthony A., David M. Kennedy, Elin J. Waring, and Anne Morrison Piehl. 2001. “Problem-Oriented Policing, Deterrence, and Youth Violence: An Evaluation of Boston’s Operation Ceasefire.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 38(3):195–225.

      Raphael, Steven, and Jens Ludwig. 2003. “Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile.” Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence 251:274–77. (This study was reviewed but did not meet Crime Solutions Criteria for inclusions in the overall program rating). SEE GRAPHS on page 257, 561

      • The facts are clear in terms of where guns come from that end up in the hands of criminals – who ARE arrested.

        The attempts to misguide in terms of basic facts is indicative of a refusal to accept responsibility for what is really happening.

        The data from Police and prosecutors is clear. Criminals are not able to get guns from their residential jurisdictions. They are “imported” from places like Virginia.

        And we KNOW that and that is why the law for one gun per month was originally passed.

        THen it was repealed, and now anyone can buy as many guns as they want – then sell them to others – without regard or real accountability to the criminal history of the latter. Its dumb law that says, after the fact, that we should have arrested … it’s like a law that was never meant to be enforced. How would you actually enforce it – BEFORE the sale of the gun?

        This is an example of the gun folks who have no intentions of helping to solve the issue. They have no proposals on how to actually deal with the crime…

        We should not be selling guns to criminals – period. Who is actually convicted of that crime and how many guns find their way north and precious few who transported them are caught and prosecuted?

        this is where there could be middle ground but the gun rights folks have no intention of doing anything at all about it.

    • Jim- we already know the facts. Do you not believe the prosecutors up north?

    • The data on how many violent crimes involved illegally sold guns is probably not available.

      Besides, the question is not about illegal gun sales. The question is about the availability on guns at gun shows that don’t require a background check for purchase. That is the legal loophole that the Governor is trying to close.

      • I don’t generally stray into this arena but everyone is missing the target (pun intended). Perhaps those who find virtue in the new legislation, as well as those legislators supporting it, should sit down and talk to some of the gun store owners. I suspect they would be in for an eye-opening experience. The problem isn’t Virginia’s gun laws but rather the prosecution or lack thereof of said laws. I have several close friends who work in such establishments and have had to testify in numerous cases involving fraudulent purchases and forged documents. The typical tactic of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, allow the perpetrator to plea down to a significantly lesser charge, ie: forging a document or filing a false report, rather than prosecuting them for felony firearms violations or having the Feds charge them for falsifying a 4473 form. As is all too often the case, they chase larger fines and forego jail time and other more severe penalties, resulting in the perpetrators simply moving on to the next store for a repeat episode. The Commonwealth doesn’t need new laws, it needs prosecutors willing to prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the existing laws. Given what I see having just been elected in NOVA, fat chance of that happening. Put away the rose-colored glasses and try looking at the reality.

        • and that’s exactly what PROJECT EXILE was. ‘to the fullest extent of the law’.

        • It’s not against Virginia law to purchase a pile of guns.

          It’s not against Virginia law to take them to New York to sell.

          It IS against the law in New York so how do you stop that with “enforcement”?

          • Sounds like a NY problem and not a Virginia problem, but that would be restating the obvious. The same applies to cigarettes illegally sold in NY that originate in VA. Thus, maybe you should focus on NY and not the Commonwealth.

        • You make a good point about the use of plea deals. I am not sure what “forged documents” may have been involved, unless a false Social Security number was used. Making a false statement in the purchase of a firearm is a Class 5 felony, which can get someone a sentence of up to 10 years. There are many reasons for plea deals, including the sufficiency of evidence and the odds of getting a conviction.

  7. No guns in England, yet people still find a way to kill each other. Clearly the only solution is Common (Non)Sense __________ Control:

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/07/knife-epidemic-should-surprise-no-one

    • They DO find ways to kill each other – the question is how many and how often.

      You cannot easily kill 50 people in a church with a knife. You can EASILY with a semi-auto gun with a high capacity magazine.

      • And I could kill far more with a bottle of scotch and a box truck. Would you thus suggest a one bottle a month limit on the purchase of distilled spirits?

  8. We also have to look at this from the perspective of our children, who are now targets and have to go to locked-down schools and presumably have to get some active shooter training, and have nightmares about it. And it seems like “mentally ill” people with no criminal background are often to blame. “Mentally ill” in quotes because while some shooters may be classic ill/diagnosed, others are not so classic.

    Not to say being a kid was ever or is supposed to be easy… as a kid I once ran home in under 30-secs for a cold war nuclear war exercise.

    This is one issue where students have some skin in the game, as far as Fairfax PS giving kids a day off for demonstration activities. I have mixed emotions if we should be letting students do partisan political rallies, but gun violence is one issue that students have a right to speak out.

    What we need to be able to say to the students, if there is any way to prevent random mass shootings, we have done it. I am not a fan of token regs for virtue signalling, but we do have a problem.

  9. Some criminal justice analysts attribute the state’s low rate of violent crime rate to its parole policies. Not only was parole abolished in 1995, but stiffer sentences were established for violent and repeat offenders. Thus, violent offenders are being kept in prison longer.

    That may explain some of the reason for the state’s lower violent crime rate, but Virginia has long had a lower crime rate than most states. In 1994, the year that the no-parole law went into effect, Virginia had the 14th lowest rate of violent crime in the country. So, there are some other factors at work. I leave it to the criminologists to figure that out.

    By the way, Virginia has the lowest recidivist rate in the country, not the second lowest. And, Jim is right. That is likely one factor in the relatively low rate of violent crime.

  10. You make many good points, however I suggest we use a more specific measure than “violent crime” to consider gun-specific policy. “Violent Crime” encompasses crimes that are unrelated to guns.

    I was curious to learn how Virginia compares to other states in two areas: overall firearm deaths and firearm suicides. By those metrics, Virginia is not exceptional; it’s typical.

    The CDC suggests that Virginia’s 2017 age-adjusted firearm death rates per 100,000 people was 11.9, compared to 12.0 nationally. Gun deaths are similar to Virginia’s 13.1 rate for flu/pneumonia.

    VDH reports 663 Virginia suicides involving a firearm in 2017. There were 1,157 suicides total. CDC puts overall suicide rates for Virginia at 13.4, compared to 14.0 nationally.

    http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/content/uploads/sites/18/2019/04/Annual-Report-2017.pdf
    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/firearm_mortality/firearm.htm
    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/states/virginia/virginia.htm
    https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/firearm_mortality/firearm.htm

  11. Would we/should we remove suicides from the metrics?

    or at the least – provide a context for how death occurs with suicides – if not mistaken, guns are not the only metric.

    and agree when we use “violent crime” as a proxy – I’m not sure we are gaining good insight. What kinds of crimes are “violent” without guns involved and how do percentages between gun-violence and non-gun-violence compare?

  12. and this one:

  13. Finland has a very high rate of alcohol abuse. It has nothing to do with “socialist bliss.”

    • It is interesting though… Some references say it’s a similar problem in the Baltic countries…

      but the other thing to notice is the means of suicide. It’s apparently not guns.

      Interesting chart:

      According to Statistics Finland’s statistics on causes of death, 261 persons died from drugs in Finland in 2018, which was 61 persons more than in 2017. The number of deaths caused by drugs have increased three years in a row. Deaths increased most in the age group 20 to 29. A majority of drug-related deaths were accidental poisonings from multiple substances where the effect from drugs was dominant.

      • We must ban alcohol and drugs in Finland. We must save them from themselves. How about a large solar flashlight so that Finland is not trapped in long hours of darkness? I bet the short hours of daylight in the winter contribute to the suicide rates.

    • How do you know that? Been there?

      • John the whatever. I have been to finland many times. I ran a news bureau for a us magazine in the 1980s and 1990s and we got supplies and services like dental care there. I may still have a credit account at helsinki’s largest department store. Have YOU ever been to finland or are just being patronizing?

        • No I have not been to Finland. I did have an exchange student from Finland. You certainly do know about Finland. It is just a habit of mine to question the experts from time to time.

  14. Context is important…

    My first thought was that Virginia has the 4th lowest rate of gun violence in a country that is a notoriously violent country (ranked near the top of all countries, 1st world and otherwise).
    How much gun violence is acceptable? Is any one here willing to argue that Virginia shouldn’t try to limit gun violence because we have so little of it? I’ll wait.

    My second thought is that just because the D’s have a new majority doesn’t mean that any of this legislation is new. Conservatives love to pretend that all newly introduced legislation (gun related, healthcare, environment) is in fact new. Most of the GA members are seasoned. These bills (well similar bills) are introduced annually (some have even been law in Virginia). GA members know the data. None of this is new. Let’s stop pretending that it is.

  15. Why would millions world wide attempt to come (legal or illegal) to the most violent nation on the face of the earth?

  16. Yep. Bills introduced annually and flushed as soon as the GOP subcommittees could meet.

    Listening to the GOP, you’d think Attila the Hun had taken over Richmond and was raping and pillaging… danger danger Will Robinson, the sky is falling.. RUN for your LIVES!

    The GOP these days is pretty much defined by one word Hyperbole.

    baby killers, they’re coming to get your guns… they’re gonna ruin the economy, social justice warriors, crime apologists, dead people voting and of course my current favorite – virtue signaling… with “leftists” coming on strong!

    Works great for rural Virginia, not so good for urban Virginia and urban Virginia is gaining votes!

    Once upon a time, the GOP had platforms that looked this way (during Eisenhower’s era):

    1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;

    2. Protect Social Security;

    3. Provide asylum for refugees;

    4. Extend minimum wage;

    5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;

    6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;

    7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

    NOW, these are “far left” ideas and the Dems have become radical and moved far left.

    REALLY?

  17. Larry is right about the Republicans of the 1940s and 1950s. Certainly more progressive than you might think. I believe in those days the black vote was solid Republican.

  18. but the GOP says it’s the Dems who have moved “far left” when in fact, the Dems are for the same things they always have been and the GOP has moved away from what they used to support – which now is categorized as “far left”!

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