The police department in Winston-Salem uses a commercial product called ShotSpotter, a network of audio sensors and software, to identify possible incidents of gunfire and ensure a faster response to them.

Since its implementation in 2021, the system appears to have reduced the number of aggravated assaults and saved at least two lives of gunshot victims who would otherwise have bled out. Research by a Southern Illinois University team estimated the equivalent of $5 million to $8 million in annual benefits to the city at a cost of $350,000 a year, an impressive return on investment. Winston-Salem officials are currently planning to renew ShotSpotter when its initial three-year contracts expires later this year.

Their counterparts in the Bull City made a different decision. By a four-to-two vote, the Durham City Council voted last month not to sign a three-year contract with ShotSpotter.

During a one-year trial period, the product helped Durham reduce its median response time to confirmed shootings by 88 seconds and appears to have saved one life, according to a study by Duke University scholars. However, in most cases of a ShotSpotter alert without an accompanying 911 call, police were unable to verify that gunfire had actually occurred.

The latter finding raised doubts among some opponents. “The data at this point is inconclusive,” said councilmember Javiera Caballero. “This is not a decision that I think is worth paying for.”

But for ShotSpotter supporter Mark-Anthony Middleton, Durham’s mayor pro tem, the one life saved during the pilot was worth it. “It was just one year,” he said. “Who knows what would happen if it were on years from now?”

I tend to think Middleton has the better argument here — and I’m troubled by evidence that some opposition to ShotSpotter is motivated by anti-police sentiment, not concern for cost-effectiveness — but my subject today isn’t the value of evidence-based policymaking. It’s the value of decentralization.

Traditionally, North Carolina has been a relatively centralized state. Since the 1930s, we’ve funded public schools primarily with state tax revenues, not local property taxes. Unlike most states, we don’t have county roads. All highways and streets are either controlled directly by the state or maintained by municipalities with significant state aid.

More generally, localities don’t exercise “home rule” here. They were created by the state and exercise only the powers granted to them by the state legislature.

Newcomers often find this state of affairs surprising. Over the decades, they’ve frequently been at the forefront of efforts to give North Carolina counties and municipalities more autonomy. Such efforts have, for the most part, failed. And I have to say, I’ve not been especially sympathetic to their cause myself.

Despite our lack of home rule and our centralized system for funding schools and roads, localities already possess the power to make many consequential decisions about how North Carolinians live, work, travel, and recreate.

The ShotSpotter case illustrates the point. A majority of elected officials in Durham decided not to keep the system in place. Charlotte made the similar decision a few years earlier. On the other hand, Winston-Salem leaders judge ShotSpotter’s public-safety benefits to be worth the expense. So do the leaders of Fayetteville, which initiated its own contract with ShotSpotter back in October.

“This is another tool our Fayetteville Police Department will have to help solve crimes, ultimately keeping our residents safe,” said Mayor Mitch Colvin. “Police will be able to respond to shootings faster with more accuracy. As a council, we’re taking actions to address gun violence we are witnessing in our community.”

Whether to use a particular crimefighting tool is and ought to be a local call, not a state or federal mandate. Over time, as jurisdictions make different policy decisions and potentially experience different policy outcomes, public officials everywhere will have more information about what seems to work, what doesn’t seem to work, and what questions remain unanswered.

And North Carolinians can, in turn, vote with their feet. That’s self-government in action.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.