Most Americans believe America is submerged beneath a tidal wave of gun violence. A Pew Research poll in 2013 found that 56 percent of Americans thought gun violence had risen in the last 20 years, 26 percent thought it had remained the same, and only 12 percent thought it had fallen. You might be surprised to learn the 12 percent were right.
The gulf between the facts about guns and the public’s perception is immense, and was created deliberately. Anti-gun advocates invent new terms (“assault weapon”) and politicians lie to win over a skeptical public. Too often these myths are swallowed by journalists and celebrities who don’t bother to check the data and don’t know how modern firearms actually work.
The myth that rising sales of semi-automatic rifles have led to rising levels of gun homicides is pervasive. “The United States has been pummeled by gun violence since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004,” read The Boston Globe’s June 16 editorial in a typically misleading statement of alarm. Although a Globe reader would reasonably conclude that the country is suffering a spike in homicides, the opposite is true. All violence, including gun violence, in America has declined dramatically for more than two decades.
Gun Ownership Up; Gun Crime Down
Using federal government data, University of Michigan and American Enterprise Institute economist Mark Perry last year measured the gun homicide rate against the number of guns per person from 1993-2013. As the number of guns per person rose from 0.94 to 1.45, the gun homicide rate fell by 49 percent, from 7 to 3.6 per 100,000 people.
Also using federal government data, the Pew Research Center reported last year that non-fatal gun victimizations have fallen from 725.3 to 174.8 per 100,000 people from 1993-2014. So all gun-related crime is falling, not just gun homicides.
The United States seems to be recovering a large chunk of the civility obliterated in the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, suggesting (as do global historical data) that human-on-human violence is predominantly a product of culture, not technology. The U.S. homicide rate more than doubled from 1963-1973 and remained high for the next 20 years. In 1973, the rate was 9.4 per 100,000 people; in 1993 it was 9.5. Although we will need more time before we can know for sure, this spike in homicides appears to have been an historical aberration. Since 1993, the homicide rate has collapsed and it now hovers around its 1962-63 level.
In 2014, the homicide rate was 4.5 per 100,000 people, less than half the rate in 1995. The last time it was that low was 1963, when the rate was 4.6. The median age in the United States is 37, so for the average American alive today the odds of being murdered have never been lower — even though Americans possess millions more firearms than they did two decades ago when homicide rates were higher.
The Same for Rifles (‘Assault Weapons’)
What about so-called “assault weapons?” The FBI divides firearms into handguns and rifles, with the rifles category covering everything from the little .22-caliber rifles kids shoot at summer camps to the dreaded AR-15. In last year’s “Uniform Crime Report,” the FBI listed the number of homicides committed with rifles since 2010. (A few thousand homicides each year are committed with firearms of undetermined type — most likely handguns. These are numbers for confirmed rifle deaths.) The numbers are: 367 in 2010; 332 in 2011; 298 in 2012; 285 in 2013; and 248 in 2014.
This decline in confirmed homicides by rifle coincided with a massive increase in the number of “assault rifles” Americans own. From 2010-2014, sales of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 rose 28 percent per year, the Los Angeles Times reported on June 13. So while the number of rifles in circulation was increasing dramatically, the number of confirmed murders committed by someone using a rifle fell by almost one-third. During the same time, the number of homicides committed with handguns fell by 9 percent.
The data produce one inescapable conclusion: The entire premise for a new “assault weapons” ban — that the proliferation of “assault weapons” has led to unprecedented carnage — is completely untrue. Yes, the United States is a particularly violent Western country. But blaming this on America’s love of guns is simplistic and wrong. The homicide rate in the United States does not track neatly with the gun ownership rate.
When searching for ways to reduce homicides in the United States, it would be more helpful to discuss America’s macho culture or America’s violent culture than America’s “gun culture.” That is, if your goal really is to make America a more peaceful place. If your goal is simply to win elections by scaring the public, then you would be talking like Sens. Harry Reid and Chris Murphy.