As we start to reopen a national conversation on gun policy in the wake of Friday's shocking mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, it's as important now to understand the geography of guns as the actual trend lines of gun-related crime over time in the past several decades.
A handful of charts paint a remarkable picture of some key shifts over the past 30 or 40 years. During that time, gun violence nationally has declined significantly even as aberrant mass shootings have grown less so; public sentiment for regulating the weapons has fallen steeply, too. Mother Jones has estimated that we’re approaching a demographic reality where our population of firearms will outpace our population of people. But hard data on the total number of civilian-owned guns in America is hard to come by, and so much of what we know on the topic is based upon what gun owners themselves say in surveys.
Anyone who follows urban crime will be well aware of this first trend: Violent crime nationally has been declining since the early 1990s. This graph comes from political scientist Patrick Egan on The Monkey Cage blog.
During that same time, the rate of household gun ownership in America has fallen from a point, in the early 1970s, when nearly half of American households said they owned a gun. Today, that figure is closer to 30 percent. This chart, based on General Social Survey data comes from a report [PDF] last year by the Violence Policy Center.
If the sheer number of guns has been expanding as the percentage of families owning them has been on the decline, it would suggest that America’s arsenal is increasingly concentrated in the homes of fewer and fewer people. That would also mean that people who do own guns now own more of them. Some researchers have suggested that these patterns make demographic sense. Guns are disproportionately owned by white men, a demographic that is aging (and shrinking as a share of the total U.S. population).
Gallup has found a steadier trend in ownership over the past decade, although ownership rates vary dramatically by geography:
For decades, Gallup has also been surveying Americans on support for gun-control laws that would ban private possession of handguns. 60 percent of Americans supported that idea in 1959. Today? Less than half that.
We have yet to see a chart graphing the increased frequency of mass shootings like the one in Newtown over the same timeframe, although the data bear that out. As Brad Plumer writes at the Washington Post, half of the 12 deadliest shootings in American history have taken place over the past five years. Over the past 30 years, Mother Jones has counted 62 mass shootings, with what looks like a particularly costly spate in those last few years alone:
All of these trends – in gun ownership, in public sentiment, in aggregate violence, in carnage from mass killings – will converge in the coming debate about what to do next. The Pew Research Center has tracked how American attitudes towards guns have changed over a much shorter period of time. Pew polled Americans on gun control both before and after each of the last three infamous mass shootings, at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, Arizona, and Aurora, Colorado, just earlier this year. Their conclusion?