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Peak Gun Crime: Early 1990s

Several readers have pointed to this 2013 Pew study [1], which I agree is surprising. More than surprising. Excerpt:

National rates of gun homicide and other violent gun crimes are strikingly lower now than during their peak in the mid-1990s, paralleling a general decline in violent crime, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data. Beneath the long-term trend, though, are big differences by decade: Violence plunged through the 1990s, but has declined less dramatically since 2000.

Compared with 1993, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the firearm homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation’s population grew. The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm—assaults, robberies and sex crimes—was 75% lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall (with or without a firearm) also is down markedly (72%) over two decades.

Nearly all the decline in the firearm homicide rate took place in the 1990s; the downward trend stopped in 2001 and resumed slowly in 2007. The victimization rate for other gun crimes plunged in the 1990s, then declined more slowly from 2000 to 2008. The rate appears to be higher in 2011 compared with 2008, but the increase is not statistically significant. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall also dropped in the 1990s before declining more slowly from 2000 to 2010, then ticked up in 2011.

Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.

More:

Mass shootings are a matter of great public interest and concern. They also are a relatively small share of shootings overall. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics review, homicides that claimed at least three lives accounted for less than 1% of all homicide deaths from 1980 to 2008. These homicides, most of which are shootings, increased as a share of all homicides from 0.5% in 1980 to 0.8% in 2008, according to the bureau’s data. A Congressional Research Service report, using a definition of four deaths or more, counted 547 deaths from mass shootings in the U.S. from 1983 to 2012.

Read the whole thing. [1]It’s important. I don’t know what the numbers are for 2015, but even if they doubled this year, that still makes them a very tiny number of overall gun homicides.

change_me

Granted, if you or someone you love dies this way, the statistics are meaningless. But if we are going to make government policy based on reality, not perception, then let’s allow reality to guide us. This is hard to do. As Sam M. keeps pointing out whenever I bring up some aspect of our moral decline, by some meaningful statistical measures, things are much better today than they were decades ago. It doesn’t fit what feels right to me, so I resist those facts. Mind you, I don’t believe those facts are necessarily conclusive, but I concede that they are harder for me to accept because they conflict with what feels true. This is a fault of mine.

There is no easy answer to this problem when rights get in the way of results. When the NYPD followed the Giuliani/Bloomberg era “stop and frisk” policies, they harvested huge numbers of illegal handguns off people on the street. But because the overwhelming majority of those handguns came from black and Hispanic men, liberal critics called the policy racist. The new mayor, Bill DeBlasio, ended it. Gun crime has gone way up.  [2]

In 2013, when NYC was getting ready to elect a new mayor and stop-and-frisk was a big issue, Commentary‘s Seth Mandel argued that liberal critics of stop-and-frisk put civil rights concerns over saving lives. [3]In response, the libertarian writer A. Barton Hinkle pointed out that just because a policy is effective does not make it justifiable [4], in particular if it violates basic rights. The rights-vs-results tension is critically important, and easy for partisans on both sides of any given issue to downplay, as if the answer were obvious.

UPDATE: Mother Jones (!) national editor Mark Follman says that the “355 mass shootings” number is a massive exaggeration, [5] one that prevents us from understanding what’s really going on. Excerpts:

At Mother Jones, where I work as an editor, we have compiled an in-depth, open-source database [6] covering more than three decades of public mass shootings. By our measure, there have been four “mass shootings” this year, including the one in San Bernardino, and at least 73 such attacks since 1982.

What explains the vastly different count? The answer is that there is no official definition for “mass shooting.” Almost all of the gun crimes behind the much larger statistic are less lethal and bear little relevance to the type of public mass murder we have just witnessed again. Including them in the same breath suggests that a 1 a.m. gang fight in a Sacramento restaurant, in which two were killed and two injured, is the same kind of event as a deranged man walking into a community college classroom and massacring nine and injuring nine others. Or that a late-night shooting on a street in Savannah, Ga., yesterday that injured three and killed one is in the same category as the madness that just played out in Southern California.

While all the victims are important, conflating those many other crimes with indiscriminate slaughter in public venues obscures our understanding of this complicated and growing problem. Everyone is desperate to know why these attacks happen and how we might stop them — and we can’t know, unless we collect and focus on useful data that filter out the noise.

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72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "Peak Gun Crime: Early 1990s"

#1 Comment By Bill On December 5, 2015 @ 11:32 am

This isn’t a Gordian knot, folks. The sheer quantity of firearms in this country creates a qualitative shift in the culture. And don’t even get me started on Hollywood’s
appetite for the glamorization of gun violence.

Whether the perception is worse than the reality is really pretty irrelevant when the reality is that we have more than 30,000 gun deaths annually in this country. The latest NRA rhetorical argument against passing any kind of limiting legislation on firearms is a form of legislative nihilism. What they mean to say when they say that this or that law wouldn’t prevent some massacre
is ‘whatever law we will allow you to contemplate won’t prevent it’. There are plenty of laws that we could contemplate that would prevent or make it difficult for these attacks to take place – we simply aren’t allowed or prepared to think about them.

The barrier to thinking about altering a gun rights regime that treats ownership of these objects like a sacred icon is the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.
Absent the amendment or it’s absolutist interpretation in favor of gun-ownership rights the regulation of ownership, quantity and type of firearms wouldn’t be all
that difficult. As a gun-owner I am mystified by my fellow gun-owners who treat an unrestricted right to firearms like Golem in the Lord of the Rings, muttering “My precious” while they contemplate the AR-15 on sale at the local Cabela’s. I have no doubt that the architects of the 2nd Amendment would be horrified that they gave the hoi polloi an expansive right to own semi-automatic weapons with cyclic and effective rates of fire capable of taking out a platoon. What was once essential liberty has now become licentiousness.

Whatever the myriad of rhetorical dodges the NRA crowd conjures up is not adequate to the mounting outrage that the public is going to unleash if these kinds of incidents continue.
One would have thought that Newtown would have been the last straw but apparently our legislators requires a greater sacrifice.

#2 Comment By VIkingLS On December 5, 2015 @ 11:45 am

“The question, particularly for folks who are pro-life, is why this level of death is an okay trade-off for the “liberty” of owning firearms. We know from Europe and Australia that it is not necessary.”

For the same reason that we accept universal speeding, that we allow car manufacturers to produce sports cars that can achieve speeds that are both illegal and unsafe, and we won’t embrace the zero-tolerance policies regarding drunk driving.

For the same reason that we allow immigration from Muslim countries despite that fact that we have had major attacks on our country by Muslim immigrants.

The actions needed to alter the status quo would involve government actions that are worse than the disease and punishing an enormous number of people who hadn’t done anything wrong.

#3 Comment By E. Potson On December 5, 2015 @ 11:51 am

Sam M: The distinction Mother Jones is making is not between fatal and non-fatal shootings. It’s between the “public mass murder” which we saw in San Bernardino and other kinds of murders that, while sad and disturbing, are less of a threat to random people. . . Sure, yes, sometimes random people are caught in the crossfire. But the mass shootings that people think about and talk about most are things like Sandy Hook and San Bernardino where killing innocent bystanders was the intention all along.

You miss entirely the point of the site that compiled the 355 number. It is precisely because many people talk only about the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino events that it’s necessary to draw attention to how frequently mass shootings actually occur in our society. The hope and intent is that by making people more aware of just how frequently extremely dangerous events occur our society, they will be motivated to adopt policies that make it less dangerous.

It’s cute, albeit naive, to suggest that gangland killing shouldn’t be of much concern because, you know, you can simply not join a gang or give up the turf. The overwhelming majority of people who live in gangland territories are not in gangs and do not “possess” turf. Yet, they are still terrorized by the mass shootings that occur there. If you’re personally not concerned about them, that’s your prerogative, but many others are wisely trying to find ways to end that terror, and one way that seems to make sense is to reduce access to the weapons that facilitate the terror.

The fact that you and Mother Jones misinterpret both the clear intent and the clear statements relating to the 355 mass shootings does not make that number an exaggeration, nor does indicate a hidden agenda or bad faith by those who compile it.

#4 Comment By E. Potson On December 5, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

NFR: It’s politically useful for gun control advocates to artificially boost the numbers.

I don’t know if this is merely another fact that you’re incapable of processing because it doesn’t feel right to you, but there is nothing “artificial” about the number. It is true that already this year there have been 355 mass shootings, as that term has been plainly defined by the site.

If you believe there haven’t been 355 mass shootings you should say so plainly and you should provide a link that disputes the number. If you think 355 mass shootings is not high enough to warrant a change in public policy, you should say so plainly and make the argument as to why. What you should not do is retreat into a make-believe world where you ignore facts that don’t fit your feelings.

[NFR: Are you daft? I *did* provide a link. Follow it. — RD]

#5 Comment By Hari.Seldon On December 5, 2015 @ 12:10 pm

This is such crap. Conservative policies around law enforcement have been more effective in improving crime rates in low-income areas than anything that has been done in decades. It is a libel to say that they care nothing about those areas.

One doesn’t have to go any further than this blog to hear such sentiments expressed, they were expressed by the host a few days ago and are expressed the “race realists” who comment on this blog regularly.

#6 Comment By Inigo Martinez On December 5, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

That’s the question? Seems pretty easy to answer. There is no “level of death” that applies to America. The murder rate where I live is 0.00 per 100,000 residents. And we have way more guns that, say, West Baltimore. To say I’m “okay” with the murders in West Baltimore is rubbish.

My ownership of firearms has no impact on the murder rate in Baltimore. There is not even a basic correlation between gun laws and crime rates.

SamM: This is not an adequate response to the charge. By far the largest number of gun deaths are gun owners who kill themselves with their own guns. There are reliable studies that show that owning a gun means suicide attempts are far more likely to be more successful. One study found 13 toddlers have killed themselves with firearms this year. You cannot seriously tell me that those toddlers ‘would have found another way to kill themselves without guns’.
You are certainly entitled to say that you consider this a price worth paying for the important right to own guns, without any further civic obligations attaching to that right. Guns are deadly weapons. Their widespread accessibility is akin to sustaining a culture of death. I don’t think it is a price worth paying.

#7 Comment By DeepSouthPopulist On December 5, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

[NFR: And you will find people on this blog, including its host, who agree with you on some, most, or all of these things, but most of the time we manage to express those feelings without being insulting and provocative to others. If you feel that it’s your role to give left-liberals a “taste of their own medicine,” do it on somebody else’s blog. What no readers can see are the abusive comments from left and right (but mostly left) that I never post. I ban people from posting here all the time when they insult me personally (sharp, and sharply worded, disagreement is not taken by me as insulting, note well) or repeatedly show that they take their participation here as an opportunity to give their opponents a taste of their own medicine. That’s why I kicked you out before. I strongly disagree with some of your beliefs, but even so, I think it’s important as a general matter to hear what you have to say. But I’m not going to put up with “taste of their own medicine”-ism. — RD]

Thank you for the kind word there. I’ll be more patient. I agree it’s not my role and that your blog isn’t the place for it.

At some point though, the cultural left *and* their less hysterical but still problematic mainstream sympathizers and excuse-makers will need to dealt with on their own terms. Respectfully, if you don’t think aggressive attack is part of winning, you may have a faulty premise at work somewhere in your reasoning. The cultural left understand it for sure.

I’m not suggesting, again, that it’s my role to do it on your blog. I appreciate the second chance and will make every effort to be more patient and careful in my writing.

#8 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 5, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

Guns should be regulated, licensed, and controlled in the same way we do motorists and cars?

Uh, yea, well except that those “qualified” drivers and “regulated” cars kill 40K and wound 300k people a year, so apparently that regulation isn’t quiet getting the job done.

Again, basic math. It’s meaningless to compare raw numbers of shooting deaths with raw numbers of vehicle fatalities. Even in a relatively gun-crazed country, large numbers of Americans never handle a gun, and most of them who do own guns don’t use them every day. Most people do drive, though, many every day. The relevant comparison is fatalities “per vehicle mile” compared to fatalities per whatever the gun equivalent would be of a vehicle mile.

Second, even as we speak, [7] for the gun enthusiasts.

Third, the only serious way to evaluate regulations is to compare the situation under the regulations with the situation as it would be without them, or as it was before they were laid down. Vehicle fatalities have been dropping steadily and are way down over the decades since the government started seriously regulating automotive safety. That’s not even controversial.

#9 Comment By planet albany On December 5, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

On a minor point on this thread, the NYC crime drop was much steeper than in other places. The preceding crime rise also was greater. There were about seven times more homicides there in 1990 than in 1960.

#10 Comment By planet albany On December 5, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

One big reason for the NYC crime decline was prison building program by Gov. Mario Cuomo.

#11 Comment By collin On December 5, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

In terms of almost social issues outside of single motherhood, the great Clinton Post-Christian era has very impressive declines in crime, divorce, abortion and most other social measures. Your little snarky comment about moving from LA (SoCal) to the LA, forgets the crime drop from old NWA Compton to today has been huge and it is lot safer today than yesteryear. To be honest, my kids simply don’t get the old school gangsta rap stuff. (Personally I rationalize the 1970s as a giant demographic Baby Boom reaching adulthood experiment with enormous positive & negative creative destruction consequences.)

Again, I think the US (and all Post-Christian world) is better off with less guns although I don’t think gun control works. In fact, the NRA feeds off a Democrat like Obama.

#12 Comment By Noah172 On December 5, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

M DeGroat wrote:

One thing that has to be borne in mind whenever you look at statistics like these, however, and that is rarely accounted for, is the advancement of medical science. Homicides can go down while the level of violent incidents remains essentially the same simply because surgeons have gotten better at patching the victims back together

The steady advancement of medical science has been a feature of American life (among other advanced countries) since at least the late 19th century — but murder rates have fluctuated widely in that long period. (By comparison, rates of death in combat and post-combat succumbing to wounds declined dramatically and consistently with each major American military conflict in the last century-plus.)

If emergency medicine was more advanced in the period 1990-present compared to 1960-1990 (that is, a time of declining murder rates versus a time of rising rates), wasn’t emergency medicine also more advanced 1965-1990 compared with 1934-1960 (the latter being a period of declining murder rates, reaching a nadir about where today’s figure stands)? Were the doctors of 1990 less competent than those of 1960?

We could also look at rates of non-fatal gun wounds in crime (that is, filtering out suicides and accidents): if those fell in line with homocide, then violence really is down rather than just less lethal because of better medicine; OTOH, if those went up, held steady, or didn’t fall as much compared to murder, then M DeGroat might have a point.

According to the CDC’s stats on rates of non-fatal gunshot injuries incurred in assault (again, excluding suicide attempts and accidents) for the years 2001-2013 (can’t find earlier), the numbers are up noticeably, but there are odd fluctuations year-to-year that on the surface don’t have obvious correlations and should give caution to those wanting to spot a trend.

But I’ll concede better medicine has saved no small number of lives.

#13 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 5, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

One doesn’t have to go any further than this blog to hear such sentiments expressed, they were expressed by the host a few days ago and are expressed the “race realists” who comment on this blog regularly.

And we are so grateful that you would denigrate conservatives generally for the sentiments of a handful. Incredibly courageous. And I certainly would not want to question your perception of those commenters’ (and Rod’s) motives.

#14 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 5, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

There are reliable studies that show that owning a gun means suicide attempts are far more likely to be more successful. One study found 13 toddlers have killed themselves with firearms this year. You cannot seriously tell me that those toddlers ‘would have found another way to kill themselves without guns’.

A ban on gun ownership is an incredibly crude way to decrease the suicide rate. If you live in a country where people are totally willing to get rid of handguns, then you probably would be pleasantly surprised by how many suicides become attempted suicides. But until that happens, the reasonable choice is to try to find a policy alternative.

#15 Comment By E. Potson On December 5, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

NFR: Are you daft? I *did* provide a link. Follow it. — RD

You’re kidding, right? Of course, I followed the link. That’s how I know you didn’t provide any evidence that 355 mass shootings haven’t occurred.

The link you provided does not dispute the occurrence of 355 mass shootings. Instead, it first admits the following:

What explains the vastly different count? The answer is that there is no official definition for “mass shooting.”

Then, it takes umbrage that shootingtracker.com isn’t tracking “the type of public mass murder we have just witnessed again [in San Bernardino].”

Shootingtracker.com doesn’t purport to track only “public mass murder” like the San Bernardino event. It also doesn’t purport to track only “mass murders,” as that term is defined by the FBI. There, of course, is no need for it to track an event that the FBI already tracks very well. Instead, it tracks mass “shootings” and it’s abundantly clear on the site that “mass shootings” includes any event wherein at least 4 people have been shot even if none of those shots were fatal.

There have been, without exaggeration, 355 such events this year.

#16 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 5, 2015 @ 11:18 pm

Shootingtracker.com doesn’t purport to track only “public mass murder” like the San Bernardino event. It also doesn’t purport to track only “mass murders,” as that term is defined by the FBI. There, of course, is no need for it to track an event that the FBI already tracks very well. Instead, it tracks mass “shootings” and it’s abundantly clear on the site that “mass shootings” includes any event wherein at least 4 people have been shot even if none of those shots were fatal.

There have been, without exaggeration, 355 such events this year.

Definitions matter. When people saw media reports of 355 mass shootings, they did not recognize the subtle difference in definition that inflated the numbers. They pattern matched it to the events that actually got coverage because they were fatal and public. This led to a dramatic overestimation of effect size that was at best negligent on the part of the reporters referencing the site.

This whole line of thinking is a terrible motte-and-bailey argument.

#17 Comment By JonF On December 6, 2015 @ 7:47 am

Re: But I’ll concede better medicine has saved no small number of lives.

It’s also true that improvements in trauma care have reduced the number of auto accident fatalities. But that does not mean that today’s cars and roads are not safer than those of forty years ago, nor that better enforcement of DUI laws have been ineffective.

#18 Comment By E. Potson On December 6, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

Michael Guarino: Definitions matter. When people saw media reports of 355 mass shootings, they did not recognize the subtle difference in definition that inflated the numbers.

Of course, definitions matter. That is precisely why one should inquire about a term’s meaning before alleging a claim is untrue. Some people lazily make a lot of false assumptions and then go on to make arguments that are clearly wrong. Other people did not lazily make false assumptions. I’m not sure why we’re trying to blame Shootingstracker.com for some people’s laziness.

After all, the site is unambiguously called Shootingstracker.com and not RedundantMassMurders,AsThatTermIsDefinedByTheFBItracker.com

#19 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 6, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

I’m not sure why we’re trying to blame Shootingstracker.com for some people’s laziness.

I did not do that. I blamed the reporters for spreading it around without taking the time to understand what they were measuring or how the public would misperceive the statistics.

#20 Comment By Isidore The Farmer On December 6, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

“We, you and I, are already deprived of our rights under the 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Amendments. The Bill of Rights was the first casualty in the GWOT after the 9/11 victims.
What makes the 2nd Amendment sacrosanct?”

I don’t disagree with the assessment of the state of affairs, but I would argue that the 2nd amendment becomes more important precisely during those times when government is stepping out of line on our other rights. When a government is concerning itself with the interests of its own citizens and bending to the will of the people, the need for a 2nd amendment is low. When those things are not happening, the need for the 2nd amendment is high. It seems to me we are currently in a time when the need is high….

#21 Comment By Neil On December 6, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

Gun crime hasn’t gone way up in New York City; compared to the same date last year, there’s 2.6% less shooting victims, 2.4% more than 2 years ago. There’s somewhat more murders (+7%) but no different than the year-to-year variation in the last years under Bloomberg when stop and frisk was still around. Certainly not way up and a small fraction (1/8th to 1/10th of 20 years ago).

[8]

#22 Comment By Sam M On December 7, 2015 @ 12:20 am

E Potson:

“You miss entirely the point of the site that compiled the 355 number. ”

Nope. Didn’t miss it.