Gun crime has plunged, but Americans think it’s up


 (Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images)

Source: Los Angeles Times

Gun crime has plunged in the United States since its peak in the middle of the 1990s, including gun killings, assaults, robberies and other crimes, two new studies of government data show.

Yet few Americans are aware of the dramatic drop, and more than half believe gun crime has risen, according to a newly released survey by the Pew Research Center.

In less than two decades, the gun murder rate has been nearly cut in half. Other gun crimes fell even more sharply, paralleling a broader drop in violent crimes committed with or without guns. Violent crime dropped steeply during the 1990s and has fallen less dramatically since the turn of the millennium.

The number of gun killings dropped 39% between 1993 and 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in a separate report released Tuesday. Gun crimes that weren’t fatal fell by 69%. However, guns still remain the most common murder weapon in the United States, the report noted. Between 1993 and 2011, more than two out of three murders in the U.S. were carried out with guns, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found.

The bureau also looked into non-fatal violent crimes. Few victims of such crimes — less than 1% — reported using a firearm to defend themselves.

Despite the remarkable drop in gun crime, only 12% of Americans surveyed said gun crime had declined compared with two decades ago, according to Pew, which surveyed  more than 900 adults this spring. Twenty-six percent said it had stayed the same, and 56% thought it had increased.

It’s unclear whether media coverage is driving the misconception that such violence is up. The mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., were among the news stories most closely watched by Americans last year, Pew found. Crime has also been a growing focus for national newscasts and morning network shows in the past five years but has become less common on local television news.

“It’s hard to know what’s going on there,” said D’Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center. Women, people of color and the elderly were more likely to believe that gun crime was up than men, younger adults or white people. The center plans to examine crime issues more closely later this year.

Though violence has dropped, the United States still has a higher murder rate than most other developed countries, though not the highest in the world, the Pew study noted. A Swiss research group, the Small Arms Survey, says that the U.S. has more guns per capita than any other country.

Experts debate why overall crime has fallen, attributing the drop to all manner of causes, such as the withering of the crack cocaine market and surging incarceration rates.

Some researchers have even linked dropping crime to reduced lead in gasoline, pointing out that lead can cause increased aggression and impulsive behavior in exposed children.

The victims of gun killings are overwhelmingly male and disproportionately black, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Compared with other parts of the country, the South had the highest rates of gun violence, including both murders and other violent gun crimes.

  • Kratoklastes

    The reason most people have such an abysmal understanding of relative risk (such as the risk of dying due to terrorism relative to the risk of dying from a lightning strike or a fall in the bath) is because the vast majority of people are functionally illiterate or semi-literate, and basically innumerate.

    I recommend that folks take a look at the various ‘Adult Literacy and Life Skills’ surveys that have been done since the 1990s to inform themselves of the cognitive impairment of the ‘bottom 90%’ of most western societies. It is clear from those surveys – which, bear in mind, are conducted by governments who laud their own education systems – that only about 5% of people can ‘read and figure’ at what I would consider a 9th grade level.

    And what’s more problematic: when it comes to prose and document literacy, about 44% of all adults do not reach a ‘level 3’ on those surveys – which means that they can not interpret the instructions on the label of a bottle of prescription medicine.

    So it is not surprising to me – in the least – that only 12% of people have the remotest idea that crime rates are actually SIGNIFICANTLY lower over the past 20 years. And if you put the numbers in per capita terms (absolutely necessary to properly account for ‘endogenous’ growth in any population statistic when populations grow), the risk associated with violent crime (and gun crime in particular) is even more dramatically lowered: population ROSE by 22%, from 258.2m in 1993 to somewhere north of 315m in 2013.

    So if gun killings dropped by 39% AND the population rose by 22%, the per capita rate of gun killings dropped by 0.61/1.22 = 50%… so in brute ‘population-wide’ actuarial terms (without adjusting for locality or lifestyle factors) the nation-wide average risk HALVED.

    But you wanna know what didn’t halve? The desire of politicians to exploit every violent event to extend their power… and the media’s complicity with its “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality (and its tendency to screech about a ‘rising trend’ of such-and-so based on 2 data points).