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Peak Gun Crime: Early 1990s

It's not getting worse, despite what it looks like on TV
Peak Gun Crime: Early 1990s

Several readers have pointed to this 2013 Pew study, 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.


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. 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.

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. 

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. In response, the libertarian writer A. Barton Hinkle pointed out that just because a policy is effective does not make it justifiable, 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, 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 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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