Friday, November 13, 2009

The Beltway Sniper and the Safety of Cities

On Tuesday of this week, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway sniper, was executed.* I lived through the horror of those three weeks, when thirteen people were shot, ten of them killed, at random, in parking lots, gas stations, and other harmless places around the DC metro area.

Here's an interesting fact: it all happened in the suburbs. (Here's a list.) Okay, one shooting was on Georgia Ave., yards from the Maryland border. But it's interesting: urban folks were not the victims.

Why not? Because the sniper had to hide where no one could see him. There was one shooting very close to where we lived. The sniper sat in a vacant parking lot across a freeway from the Home Depot parking lot where his victim was getting into the car.

Here's where he sat:

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And here's where he shot:

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I really don't think is rocket science: the sniper needed vacant places. He found them in the suburbs; they are much harder to find in the city, and do not exist in truly urban neighborhoods.

We hear much of violent crime in the city, and are made to believe that every city dweller is likely to be the victim of stray bullets. My boss has warned me to lock my car doors and drive through red lights in Newark, since it's so likely that one of those scary black people will tear me from my car. But, I'm sorry folks, those incidents of random violence, though they happen, are extremely rare.

Think about this: South Orange Ave. in Newark (where my boss fears to tread) is about seventy feet across (from store front to store front). My body is (rounding up) maybe two feet across. Thus if I am standing directly perpendicular to a random gun shot flying down the street, my chances are less than one in thirty-five that it will hit any part of my person. That's if I happen to be standing where there is random gun fire. And of course if the gun is not pointed perfectly level, the shot will go over my head or his the ground before it gets me.

On the other hand, I-280 (an alternative route to work) has two lanes of traffic going each way; my car takes up one of those lanes. Thus my chances are 50/50 that an out-of-control car (such as a drunk driver) will hit me. And cars never go over your head, and are at least as deadly as bullets.

And honestly, what happens more often, random gun fire, or drunk drivers? I'm sorry to tell you that random gun fire is exceedingly uncommon, even in Newark.

At our very worst (and we are much improved) Newark had 161 murders among 280,000 residents; in an average year, New Jersey sees 771 traffic fatalities among its 8,700,000. Thus the average Newarker has a 1/1,700 chance of getting murder; the average Jerseyite has a 1/11,000 chance of dying on the freeway. If murders were as random as freeway accidents, you'd be 6.7 times safer living out of the city. But don't you think the randomness makes up for that small proportion? If nothing else, a freeway life is only marginally safer than a city life without freeways.

By the way, our working-class neighborhood of Newark (my family is well below the median income for the state of New Jersey) has a murder rate of about 1/12,000. Which makes you less likely to get killed in a decent neighborhood of Newark then on the freeway. And again, which is more random? Somebody has to point a gun at you to murder you; they only have to be playing with their cell phone or GPS to kill you on the freeway. I'll take my walkable neighborhood and my commute down South Orange Ave.

Perhaps the reason cities seem so much scarier than freeways is just the irony that what is less common sticks out in your mind more. When you hear that somebody's been killed on the freeway, you shrug: happens all the time. When someone gets murdered, it goes on the front page. That doesn't mean it's more common; quite the contrary.

*See the next post for a commentary on the execution of John Allen Muhammad.