Much is made of the innocent passerby who is killed by a gangster or a mental patient. These are horrific crimes, and they do happen, but they are actually extremely rare. However much ordinary people may fear crime, it is highly unlikely that they will ever be victims of violence. The exception is domestic violence, which occurs at all income and educational levels. This ugly crime is not rare enough, unfortunately, yet it too is uncommon compared to what criminals do to one another.
In San Francisco, at least, most murder victims have criminal records. A study done at Cal Berkeley's law school found that of the 98 homicides in SF in 2007, almost three quarters of the arrested suspects, and more than three quarters of victims, had criminal records. As David Onek, the study's executive director, said, "Today's shooter is tomorrow's victim."
This was a study about murder, of course. It did not count up the large number of non-criminals who were victims of identity theft, or who had their cars broken into. There is no doubt that theft from your car will ruin your day, or that identity theft may ruin your year. But, if you don't use drugs, if you have no other reason to deal with criminals, and if you have never been arrested, you are unlikely to ever personally experience violence except at the movies, on TV, or while reading your favorite fiction.
The study presents other facts about San Francisco's murder victims. More than 70% of them had been convicted of at least one violent crime. More than 68% had been convicted of a drug crime. More than 73% had been on probation, and nearly 47% were on probation at the time of their death.
In the main, these criminals are poor and young. What else do thy have in common? They are in gangs. These gangs fight for turf, they sell drugs, and they engage in other illegal activities. They can be combated, at least to a degree, by enforcement activities aimed directly at them.
Another approach that is sometimes suggested is to legalize illicit drugs. This would eliminate the profits from the criminal enterprise which is surely a foundation of the gang lifestyle. On the other hand, the state would be condoning a practice which already destroys families and blights lives.
Drugs probably will not be legalized. The majority of homicide deaths, at least in large cities, will continue to be gang-related. The majority of Americans will most likely remain safe from the worst manifestations of crime. The poor, the addicted, the ill, and the short-sighted young will continue to bear the brunt of violent crime.