The Cost of Murder
Jim MacMillan and Aaron Moser ’13 measure the myriad ways in which gun violence ricochets through societyJim MacMillan and Aaron Moser ’13 measure the myriad ways in which gun violence ricochets through society
Jim MacMillan has spent much of his adult life not necessarily looking down the barrel of a gun but looking through a lens at what those guns had done.
MacMillan was a photojournalist for the Associated Press, the Philadelphia Daily News, and a freelancer in streets as mean as those in Iraq and North Philadelphia. He had become fascinated by what gun violence could perpetrate but also somewhat thrown off by what he felt were the clichéd responses around it.
“This debate has not moved in the 50 years I have known about it,” says MacMillan, who, until recently, was journalist-in-residence with the College’s War News Radio and manager for media and responsibility for the Eugene Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. “We have to treat gun violence as a public-health problem. It is only then that we can find good solutions.”
To that end, MacMillan launched Guncrisis.org a year ago. At its core is the reporting of every incident of gun violence in Philadelphia and every detail he and his partners—two other photographers, a writer, and interns, including Aaron Moser ’13—can find about each of those incidents.
In part, Guncrisis.org was inspired by MacMillan’s association with Swarthmore’s War News Radio, which he has tried to transform into a place where those interested in journalism can try out ideas for research or practice.
Two years ago, he met Aaron Moser, a psychology major from Great Barrington, Mass., who became Guncrisis.org’s first intern and researcher.
“For me, it was a great opportunity to get involved in the current media landscape,” says Moser. “And now, with the ongoing discussion of gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings, it is giving us a chance to be part of that discussion.”
Philadelphia, Moser and MacMillan contend, is a perfect laboratory through which to research gun violence. It has, they say, the highest rate of gun violence—not just homicides but the use of guns in violent acts from attempted murder to armed robbery—of any major city in the country.
Guncrisis.org reports on its site all of the 300-plus gun-related homicides each year in the City of Brotherly Love, in addition to the four or five gun-violence nonhomicides that occur daily in the city.
“We have sources at the police and others [that are] unofficial and community based, so we believe we get to 99 percent of the scenes—most with photography—and do both original reporting and aggregating, which we place on the website,” says MacMillan.
Moser’s biggest contribution as an intern was researching the staggering economic impact of gun violence on the city and its most violent communities. He testified before a Philadelphia City Council caucus last summer that gun violence costs the city more than $3.5 billion a year.
“You should have seen those city council members,” MacMillan recalls. “They were on the edges of their seats listening to Aaron’s testimony. It [was] quite compelling.”
Moser’s calculations started with research done by the Rand Corp. and the Center for American Progress—the former a center-right think tank, the latter a more progressive one.
“It is not just the personal loss but what it means to a community,” says Moser. “There are court costs and prison and police and medical care. Then there are the things that are tough to quantify—the cost of a murder to businesses on the street or to businesses that will not come into these neighborhoods where crime is most endemic. There is lost worker productivity and lost quality of life for the survivors.
“We estimated that a 25 percent drop in violence would raise property values at least 2 percent, which across the city could be billions of dollars,” he adds.
Moser and MacMillan say that Philadelphia is bucking the trend of other major cities. Gun violence and homicide are drastically down in places like Washington, D.C., and New York City, but homicide has risen in Philadelphia since 2009—to 331 fatalities in 2012. Thirty years ago, MacMillan notes, only about 70 percent of homicides were gun inflicted; now it is nearing 90 percent.
Moser believes the economic argument helps explain the gun-violence propensity in Philadelphia, as his research indicates that the gap between the poor and affluent in Philadelphia is disproportional, even by the standards of other American cities.
“That means it is harder to escape your poor neighborhood,” says Moser. “Crumbling educational facilities, lack of good role models in the community, difficulty in getting or getting to jobs, all contribute to the environment that promotes gun violence.”
This spring, Swarthmore students were able to delve deeply into the consequences of gun violence in the new course Peace Studies and Action, taught by Lee Smithey, the associate professor of sociology who coordinates Swarthmore’s Peace and Conflict Studies Program. Students wrote articles based on their research that could appear on the Guncrisis.org site.
“There is some pedagogical value in looking at an issue that is close to home,” Smithey says. “We are aware that we are fairly sheltered here in the leafy suburbs. We don’t want to be conflict tourists, but being near North and West Philadelphia and being able to study them close up can be fruitful.”
Though they are happy that gun violence is on the lips of many Americans in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy and other mass homicides, Moser and MacMillan warn that shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary mask the overall problem of gun violence, particularly in cities.
“Seventeen people were killed at the Aurora [Colo.] movie theater [in July], which is horrific,” MacMillan says. “But then there were 100 people shot on the streets of Philadelphia in the next few weeks, mostly individually. So the real ongoing problem is on those streets.”
According to MacMillan, there is no official definition of mass shooting, but the FBI calls something a mass murder when four people are killed.
“But there are so many aspects to this. Do you need four people with bullets in them?” asks MacMillan. “Do you need four people who had bullets fired separately? What if a shotgun is fired into a room, and one person is killed and other people have pellet injuries? Here is the bottom line: More than 99 percent of the people shot to death were not killed in mass shootings.”
MacMillan and Moser caution that Guncrisis.org’s research is new and evolving. But the discussion has to move, at least initially, from the polarizing talk of gun bans to prevention of violence in the first place, with community involvement and improved opportunities, especially for young men, who are most likely to commit or be the victims of gun violence. They hope that those who visit the Guncrisis.org site become fascinated by the subject and join the debate. To put more energy into furthering that aim and to work part time at Temple University’s Center for Public Interest Journalism, MacMillan left his College staff position in March. He will continue to work with Smithey’s class through the spring semester and with Moser to keep the dialogue going.
“It is true that Newtown gives us the opening to talk, and that is good,” says Moser. “But there has to be more communication, more community-based things, if there is ever to be a solution to the real problem of gun violence.”