Crime? Don’t trust Paul Helmke to tell you about it (copy)

Paul Helmke, a former Indiana mayor reinvented as a Beltway crusader for the Brady Center/Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has never seen a gun death that he didn’t like as a rhetorical point.

Now he’s back, working at Indiana University and mounting a grassroots campaign to throw out local officials who don’t share his take on the issue.

“The Indiana Legislature has preempted local governments from doing anything directly on guns,” the old progressive tells the sympathetic Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “What do our local candidates think of that? Are they willing to push for more local control, or at least stronger state gun laws?”

We would refer the mayor to John Lott, an actual expert on crime and gun violence with numbers to back up his arguments, but Helmke already has lost a national debate to Lott — embarrassingly, some thought. So let me speak for the thousands of Hoosiers who have lost dear ones to non-gun crimes, killed in their homes, strangled or beaten to death, intimidated by thugs, all without relevance to the mayor’s narrative.

I grew up in the 1950s in a small town of 15,000, a petri dish of criminology as it turned out. Back then it was ranked highest in the nation in per-capita juvenile delinquency. There was a war there between two teenage gangs, the one descendants of early ranchers and settlers and the other of Mexican laborers brought in by the railroad.

The last time I checked, you could still make out traces of the warfare at the local recreation center, the money for which was commanded by the social-justice elements on city council. It was needed, or so argued the progressives of the time, to give troubled youth something to keep them busy, an early version of midnight basketball.

Anyway, at the rec center the most well-meaning volunteers had built by hand wood booths where we could sit and watch the dance floor and listen to the jukebox (a top-of-the-line Wurlitzer Bubbler). The gang members, as if to illustrate the futility of it all, had indulged in a sort of art and craft there, carving their club signs, some of them elaborate, into the booths. They used the switchblade and gravity knives that most of them carried.

It all changed in 1959 when the county elected a new prosecutor. Gang leaders disappeared that summer from the recreation center, from the streets and from the pinball parlors. They had been arrested or brought in for questioning as a result of an invigorated interest in law and order. The “root cause” sop was still in the future.

Some of the crimes were serious but most were not. The offenders, many of them sad cases from homes without trustworthy adults or steady discipline, were sent to an institution or to a probationary authority, Think New York City and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

It was an early, crude application of what later would be known as “broken windows” policing, of which two claims are made: 1) That such arrests deter further petty crime and low-level anti-social behavior; and 2) that major crime is ultimately prevented as a result.

Whatever, in my town it worked out for the younger age groups on both sides of the gang divide. They were able to grow up free of violence in an idyllic town.

Today, if we are going to do as well, we must use our heads as well as our hearts. The impossible quest for perfect social justice, pinning blame on inanimate objects like guns, all combined with an inattention to the relationship between freedom and responsibility, has fostered only dismay and made division more likely than resolution.

But Fort Wayne’s ex mayor is right that Hoosier communities should put some thought into this. We can ask each other when exactly enough is enough, when should a town decide to stop building recreation centers à la Helmke and when instead it should crack down à la Giuliani.

For each Indiana community must work out its own timing, and thereby its own future.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to awoods@