When someone unleashes a seemingly incomprehensible amount of rage upon innocent civilians – as seen in the recent Virginia Tech killings – there is one question everyone seems to ask: “What would motivate someone to do such a thing.” The problem is that this question often leads people to try to “de-motivate” criminals, which is simply not a realistic objective.
After focusing for nearly 100 years on the unrealistic task of de-motivating the offender, the field of criminology was given a reprieve in 1979 when Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson developed the “Routine Activities” theory of crime. This theory shifted the emphasis from the motivated offender to a) the suitable target of crime, and b) the capable guardian against crime.
Cohen and Felson assumed that in any society at any time there would be no shortage of people “motivated” to commit crimes. By treating the “motivated offender” as a constant they were shifting emphasis to two variables, which can vary wildly across time and geographical location. And they also provide the best explanation for the necessity of firearms ownership by responsible citizens.
Since the “suitable target” and “capable guardian” concepts are undoubtedly unfamiliar to most readers, I would suggest that we indulge in a creative exercise. It starts with the reader imagining he is a motivated offender – specifically, one who is motivated to commit the crime of burglary in a typical residential neighborhood in the year 1957.
If you take a few minutes to imagine you are “casing” a residence – that is, looking inside before entering – you will notice something interesting: There are few suitable targets inside.
All of the valuables inside the average 1950s home were simply too bulky for the average burglar to steal by himself. The television (there was probably only one), the radio, and the stereo system (probably a turntable connected to a receiver and two big speakers) were all many times heavier than they are today.
But there is something else the would-be 1957 burglar would see upon looking in the house: A housewife, or, in other words, a capable guardian.
Imagine further that due to the absence of suitable (i.e., light and expensive) targets and the presence of the capable guardian you delay your burglary attempt until 2007, though your motivation has never waned.
In the process of “casing” the average 2007 home, you see something very different. The television (now there are several), radio, and stereo got a whole lot lighter. And there are all kinds of new, light, portable, and expensive goodies to steal (laptops, DVD players, iPods, etc.). They all go by the same name: Suitable targets.