Careful with the Panic: Violent Crime and Gun Crime Are Both Dropping

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Since Friday’s shooting in Colorado Springs, I have spoken to a number of people who have insisted earnestly that America is spiraling out of control. “This is just how we live now,” they have told me. And then they have asked the usual questions: “When are we going to do something about all the gun crime?”; “How bad will it have to get before Americans act?”; “Can the NRA see what it’s done to the country?”

In each and every case, I have responded gently that what happened was of course terrible, but that violent crime is actually on the way down and that we thus ought to be careful before taking the actions of a crazy person and spinning them into a “trend.” In the majority of cases, this view has been met with resistance. Put more bluntly, most people with whom I have spoken simply will not accept that things are better today than they were ten years ago — or, for that matter, that America is safer today than it has been for a long, long time. All told, this is rather strange, because the data are quite clear. Yes, America still has a host of problems, and violent crime and gun-related-crime are among them. But those problems are decreasing, not increasing.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this report, from the left-leaning Brookings Institute:

Today, the national crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991. Violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and property crime by 43 percent. In 2013 the violent crime rate was the lowest since 1970. And this holds true for unreported crimes as well. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, since 1993 the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimizations per 1,000 people.

Here’s the trend since 1960. As you will see, the lines go up and then the lines go down. This is A Good Thing.

Do Americans know this? Apparently not, no:

Government statistics show that, except for some small blips, serious crime has decreased almost every year from 1994 through 2013. For over a decade Gallup has found that the majority of Americans polled believe crime is up, contrary to the fact that crime rates have plummeted in almost every small and large city since the 1990s. This is not to say that all cities and areas are experiencing decreases in violent crime year after year, but the overall rate of violent crime is significantly lower than historic levels.Brookings.

The same trend is evident in the realm of “gun crime.” Per a Pew analysis of DOJ statistics:

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.

Here, too, the line is continuing to move in the right direction, albeit the decline has slowed in recent years:

Per the FBI, 2014 yielded a further reduction in gun murders, of just under 4 percent:

A report published by the FBI on Monday shows that gun murders and other violent crimes continued to fall in 2014.

The FBI Crime in the United States report found 8,124 murders committed with firearms in 2014, down from 8,454 in 2013. That represents a 3.9 percent drop year over year and the lowest rate of any year included in the report.

Any government program that returned results such as these would be praised heavily Again, though, Americans do not seem to know just how much progress has been made.

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.

Indeed, when it is suggested that things are improving, many people become angry and move the goalposts. “So you’re saying,” they ask derisively, “that the current levels are acceptable? So you think it’s okay that so many people are victims?””

The answer to such questions is simple: “No, of course not.” To recognize that a problem is declining in scale is quite obviously not to contend that the remaining trouble does not matter. Lest anybody misunderstand me here, I’ll say it plainly: It is A Good Thing that 330 fewer people were murdered with firearms in 2014 than in 2013, and it is A Bad Thing that 8,124 were killed in 2014 anyway. Equally, though — and this, I think is where the disagreement lies — I do not believe that to acknowledge that the status quo is imperfect is to accept that we know how to improve it.

That latter point matters a great deal. Why? Well, because implicit in pretty much every criticism of the present “gun crime”-rate is the unsubstantiated assumption that Americans could easily rid themselves of the remaining violence if they were willing to implement whatever legislative proposals are currently en vogue. That assumption needs challenging — and hard. Sure, it is possible that a change in the laws might bring about a faster reduction in crime. But it is also possible that the recent reduction is itself the product of such changes. Over the last 25 years, we have seen a remarkable reduction in violent crime at the exact moment that the country has been flooded with firearms and has (generally) loosened the laws that govern their ownership and use. Did one cause the other? Frankly, I have no idea — and nor, in truth does anybody else. But I do know that things are improving and that we ought to be extremely careful before we conclude that the current regime has nothing at all to do with that improvement. “First do no harm,” says the Hippocratic Oath. We might live by that here, too. Things are getting better. Let’s be circumspect about tinkering and prodding at our success.

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