Is the murder rate really at a 47-year high?

And yet the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right?  Did you know that?  Forty-seven years.  I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is.  It wasn’t to their advantage to say that.  But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.

President Trump, in a Roundtable with County Sheriffs, made these remarks on February 7, 2017.

But is it true?

In a word…no.  Not even close.

The FBI maintains crime databases, including a handy table-generating tool for crime rates from 1960-2014, which you can feel free to browse yourself.  This isn’t the only crime measurement tool out there, but it’s pretty reliable and objective, and is broadly consistent with the other methodologies out there.

Here’s the short version:  Across the board, violent crime is at historic lows.  The overall violent crime rate, as of 2014, is lower than any other year since 1971.  The homicide rate in 2013 and 2014, at 4.5 per 100,000 people, is lower than any other time since at least 1960.  These trends are essentially true across all categories of violent crime (rape, aggravated assault, robbery), with recent rates at their lowest since the mid-70s or earlier.  To put the homicide numbers in perspective:  In 1980, the homicide rate peaked at 10.2 per 100,000 people, before dropping down to 7.9 by 1984, and in 1991 it peaked again at 9.8.

When you bring in the 2015 numbers, it’s a little less rosy:  The homicide rate is up to 4.9, with modest spikes in other crime areas as well.  And that’s actually a fairly large spike in homicides – about 10.8%.  But 4.9 is only bad by comparison to the last few years.  Before 2010, the previous time that figure was less than 5 was in 1964.

And there’s the rub.  The statistic to which Trump was likely referring is that it’s the highest increase in murder rate, year-over-year, since 1970-71, when the rate increased from 7.9-8.6.  To characterize it as being the highest murder rate in 47 years, however, is a dramatic misunderstanding and misstatement of that statistic, when the rate itself is still lower than in most of the intervening years, and still less than half the rate in 1980.

The fact that Trump got it wrong, though, is only part of the story.  Perhaps he simply didn’t understand the statistic; perhaps in the above-noted quotation it was a matter of verbal misstatement, where he incorrectly articulated the statistic…twice.  But what really brings the misstatement into the purview of the Cult of Ignorance is the fact that he’s contending that there’s a media conspiracy to suppress the scope of the crime problem.  If the murder rate really were the highest in 47 years, and the media weren’t reporting on it, that would signal a major problem within the press.

But the largest increase since 1971…that’s a little more nuanced.

First off, it’s worth highlighting that the ‘largest increase’ factoid is only true in a percentage-based sense:  For instance, in 1989-1990, the homicide rate increased from about 8.7 to 9.4 – a spike of 0.7 per 100,000 people, much larger than the increase from 2014 to 2015, but only about an 8% increase over the existing (higher) base rate.  In turn, this highlights the impact of having such a low rate – that even a relatively modest spike looks pretty dire in percentage terms.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly noteworthy, and in fact the media has reported on it.  (See, for example, this New York Times story from May 2016; this Wall Street Journal piece from December 2016; or this Time story from December 2016, among others.)  But is it a major scandal that should be dominating the front page?  Well, no, certainly not in the way that the highest actual murder ‘rate’ would.

It’s difficult to know what to make of a single-year statistic – it could be an anomaly that’s not indicative of changing trends or patterns.  Or it could signal the start of an upward climb.  So a lot of the coverage is basically trying to figure out what to make of it.  Indeed, when you delve into the media coverage, you find a lot of discussion of the relatively localized nature of these spiking crime stats – that the increase is mostly driven by trends in specific areas (most notably Chicago).

Even taking the factoid at its best – that the 2014-2015 year-over-year increase in the murder rate is, by percentage, the highest since 1971 – it’s clearly not a crisis.  There’s public debate and discourse as to whether and what policy action should be taken to address the spike, and there’s always room for improvement (bearing in mind that even 4.5 was one of the highest rates in the developed world), but ultimately we’re still talking about a homicide rate that’s among the lowest in modern US history, and so the implication that there’s some media agenda to suppress the story fails to recognize the media coverage that is out there and/or overestimates the importance of the story on the whole.

So-Called “Bill M-103”

It doesn’t do what you think it does. Or anything, really.

The latest from the Cult of Ignorance deals with what they call “Bill M-103”, in the Canadian Parliament.

There are a few apoplectic posts floating about it around the internet, such as this share to CBC Edmonton’s Facebook page.  (You can Google “Bill M-103” to find more.  Most of the hits will bring you to paranoid nonsense, because there’s not actually a thing called “Bill M-103”.  I make no representations about the safety of any websites that may pop up, though.)

In a nutshell, the claims being made are that M-103 is a bill before Parliament that would classify any (negative?) speech about Islam as “Islamophobia”, subjecting the speaker to criminal prosecution.

The first hint that something is off here is the letter.  Federal bills don’t start with “M”.  M-103 is, in fact, a private member’s “motion”.  And here’s the full text of the motion.  It’s short enough, however, to reproduce in full here:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making, (ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Let’s be clear on a few points here:  Motions don’t make laws.  They don’t amend laws.  They don’t turn speech into an offence.  They don’t subject people to criminal prosecution.

This motion, if adopted, basically does two things:  (1) It would amount to a statement by the House of Commons that systemic racism and religious discrimination (including but not limited to Islamophobia) is bad (not “criminal” or “illegal” but merely worthy of condemnation); and (2) it would request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study to collect data and develop approaches relating to systemic racism and religious discrimination.

That’s it.  Nobody’s going to jail for saying something negative about Islam; that’s not what the motion does.  Full stop.

If anyone tries to convince you that M-103 makes Islamophobia a criminal offence…they’re either ignorant or lying.  It does not and cannot do such a thing.

But is the Motion Necessary in the First Place?

The Toronto Sun recently published an opinion piece about it by Anthony Furey.  To Furey’s small credit, he appears to recognize that it isn’t actually a bill, and doesn’t actually change the law.  But his entire alarm appears to be rooted in a ‘slippery slope’ argument – he’s worried about what legislative reforms might follow the study by the SCCH, because he’s convinced that “there’s a good chance they’ll be dragnet laws that criminalize anyone who dares stand up to the many unsavoury parts of orthodox Islam.”  Notwithstanding Furey’s fear of what legislative reform may eventually follow (and remembering that any legislative reform would have to comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including its guarantee of freedom of expression), it bears highlighting that this motion doesn’t actually do any such thing.

Furey also argues that the “increasing climate of hate in Canada” comes “from within Islam”, seeming to dispute the legitimacy of the premise of the bill, that Muslims in Canada face unjustified hatred and persecution from non-Muslims.  To be fair to Furey, his column was posted the day before Alexandre Bissonnette murdered six people praying at a mosque (a grocery store owner, a university professor, a pharmacy worker, and three civil servants) and injured 19 others.

But Bissonnette’s crime, while recent and extreme, is not the first evidence of Islamophobia in Canada:  In Edmonton, in late 2016, someone was recently spreading anti-Islam pamphlets, calling for the deportation and banning of Islam, with a graphic showing men with nooses around their necks.

When Mississauga was evaluating a zoning application for the construction of a mosque in Meadowvale, a website and pamphlets were proliferated seeking to “stop the mosque” in order to protect “Canadian values” and prevent increases in various forms of criminal activity; a related online publication later made unsupported claims that large numbers of female high school students in Mississauga were being sexually assaulted by Muslims.

In Calgary, in February 2016, somebody spraypainted “Syrians go home and die” on the wall of a Calgary school.  Mosques have been vandalized or even set on fire.  Women wearing the headscarf have been physically and/or verbally assaulted.

In other words, notwithstanding Furey’s desire to overlook the unwarranted abuse that Canadian Muslims are receiving, there’s clear evidence of the ‘climate of hate and fear’ that M-103 seeks to recognize and condemn.