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Violence and leaded gasoline
Today I join my colleagues at Guardian Media Ltd in mourning the death of Junior Valentine. Though we weren’t close, we were co-workers for some years and for most of my time at the paper he was as much a part of the Guardian as that press that used to thump like a heart downstairs at 22-24 St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain.
The press is long gone, relocated to a plant in Chaguanas; and Junior Valentine, production supervisor, is gone too, shot to death near to his home in Laventille last Friday.
“What is going on in Trinidad?” exclaimed my ex-husband, himself a former Guardian employee, when I told him about the killing of our erstwhile co-worker.
What indeed. Hardly any of us, however young or old, whether we are from East, West, South or Central, can say we don’t know anybody who was a victim of a violent crime in this country. Just a few weeks ago, while picking up my daughter from pan practice at her school, I overheard three girls discussing another girl with whom they’d gone to primary school. The girl had been shot.
My own nephew and later on his half-brother were shot to death. Late last year a man in my neighbourhood was shot to death.
Soon I will lose count of the people I have known who have died from gunshots.
Last month in the US, a gunman went on a shooting spree in a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
He killed 27 people in all, including his own mother and 20 primary school children, before killing himself.
It wasn’t the first such shooting, and probably won’t be the last, and when it happened I couldn’t help but wonder when something like that would happen in Trinidad.
The Sandy Hook incident involved legally purchased guns and precipitated a lot of discussion about gun control in the US, where there are nearly 89 legally owned guns per 100 residents.
We have tough gun-control laws—the Wikipedia article from which I got the US ratio of legal gun ownership gives the T&T statistic as 1.6 guns per 100 residents. Yet we have a serious gun problem of our own.
Our guns are mostly illegal, and thus uncountable. There is no way of knowing how many guns are in our communities; Sandy Hooks waiting to happen.
We debate and debate the causes of violence in our country. For a small population we have an extraordinarily high number of murders.
Violent crime—while apparently trending downwards over time, according to police reports, is still off the charts. Who knows why?
The underground narco-economy is certainly one big reason for the gun problem, and without resolving that there is no hope that we can resolve the problem of illegal gun ownership and its attendant violent crime.
Guns and drugs go hand in hand, and with so many communities virtually dependent on the black economy of drugs trafficking, getting guns out of those communities will be an intractable problem.
However, there may be another factor to consider.
I recently read an article on the fascinating Mother Jones magazine Web site linking gasoline lead with violent crime. The Kevin Drum investigative report, America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead, states in part, “…if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 per cent of the variation in violent crime in America.
Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the 40s and 50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.”
Referencing a study by researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, Drum added: “During the 70s and 80s, the introduction of the catalytic converter, combined with increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency rules, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline used in America, but Reyes discovered that this reduction wasn’t uniform.
In fact, use of leaded gasoline varied widely among states (…). If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behaviour in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too.
Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly. And that’s exactly what she found.”
Drum’s story indicates that the correlation is found worldwide, not just in the US: a rise in the amount of lead in gasoline fumes will be followed 20-odd years later by a rise in violent crime; and the reverse, Drum writes, is also true—when leaded gasoline is banned, it’s followed 20-odd years later by a drop in violent crime.
T&T banned leaded gasoline in 2004. If the research on the link between leaded gasoline and violent crime is correct, we have only another decade of this out-of-control violence to go. Not that that will comfort Junior Valentine’s family. My condolences to them.
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