One of the most striking public policy stories in urban America for the past generation – true all across the country but mysterious in its causes – has been the steep decline in gun homicides and violent crime since the early 1990s. Gun homicides peaked in the United States in 1993, a zenith that coincides with the worst reputations of devolving cities in the midst of crack epidemics and white flight.
Since then, firearm homicides have declined, dramatically through the 1990s and then more slowly since 2000. Non-fatal firearm crimes have declined. And violent crime in general has gone down, too. By 2010, the firearm homicide rate in America was 49 percent lower than it was in 1993. This chart, from a report out today by the Pew Research Center, shows the long-term trend in gun homicides since 1980:
And one more, showing non-fatal gun crime since 1993:
This latest Pew study, primarily based on federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, contained one other odd finding: A majority of Americans seem oblivious to these trends. In Pew's survey, 56 percent of people believe that there's more crime involving guns in America today than there was 20 years ago. Only 12 percent of people get this question right.
So why might this be? If gun violence has dramatically declined in America, and many cities are safer today as a result – and plenty of people moving back into them seem to intuitively understand this – why do so many people think gun violence is getting worse?
For one thing, mass shootings invariably weigh more heavily on the public psyche than lone gun deaths, and shootings involving three or more victims have slightly ticked up. In Pew's 2012 News Interest Index, the mass shooting in Newton, Connecticut, ranked second only to the presidential election among stories Americans followed most closely last year. Also among the top stories last year: the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting (ranked fifth) and the Trayvon Martin case (ranked 11th).
It's also possible that Americans have been confused about the trend precisely because researchers and policy wonks have been confused as well about what's behind it. Some law enforcement agencies have tried to take credit for safer cities thanks to police tactics (the decline has been national, though, occurring across cities with varying strategies). Increased incarceration rates suggest that fewer criminals might be on the streets today relative to the 1980s (but foreign countries have seen similar declines without our prison system). Other researchers have pegged the decrease in crime to America's rise in legal abortions, or to the drop in lead in gasoline. But the National Academy of Sciences has questioned both of these two hypotheses.
Twenty years into this safer era, we still don't know quite how we got here. Perhaps in absence of a logical narrative, many Americans simply find it hard to believe this is true.