(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Gun violence in America is way down. So says the federal government less than a month after President Obama’s push to tighten background checks failed to pass in the Senate. Firearm homicides have declined 39 percent since 1993, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released on May 7. A separate study by the Pew Research Center put the decline at an even more impressive 49 percent. Nonfatal gun crime also dropped over two decades—by an eye-opening 69 percent, according to the government.
This is unmistakably good news, and actually echoes the findings of other recent studies. Yet for those who would reform the nation’s gun laws, the positive data might create a problem just as attempts to revive tougher curbs are getting under way. The main argument gun control advocates have long made is that tighter restrictions on firearms are needed to cut crime.
In the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., the president proposed a ban on the sale of “assault weapons,” meaning certain semiautomatic military-style rifles that accommodate large ammunition magazines. The new government research shows that zeroing in on assault weapons like the one used by the Newtown killer may be a distraction. Over the past two decades, about 70 percent to 80 percent of gun homicides and 90 percent of nonfatal firearm crimes were committed with handguns, not rifles or shotguns, according to the government.
The studies also raise questions about an argument gun control proponents have made in response to falling firearm homicide rates. These seemingly hopeful trends, the argument goes, mask persistent and possibly even rising levels of violence. According to this theory, improvements in emergency trauma care are saving the lives of many more gun victims. But the new research suggests that violence overall is declining significantly. The government reported that according to one survey, an average of about 22,000 nonfatal shootings occurred annually from 1993 to 2002. From 2002 to 2011, that number declined by about half—to 12,900 per year.
Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, cautions that measuring gunshot woundings is notoriously difficult and that different surveys produce conflicting results. Still, the substantial drops captured by the study point to a U.S. society that’s getting safer overall, even if gun crime rates remain much higher than in comparable industrialized democracies such as Britain and Canada.
Yet another intriguing research finding: Prior to Newtown, schools, on average, had been getting safer over time. The number of homicides at schools declined from an average of 29 per year in the 1990s to an average of 20 between 2000 and 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said.
On the day the reports were released, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, an architect of the failed gun control bill, pledged on CBS This Morning that he’s committed to getting a revised measure passed. “We’re going to have to make some adjustments to it and find out where the comfort zone is,” he said. One idea he’s exploring is altering a background-check requirement that would have extended to all online gun sales. So far, though, Manchin doesn’t have the five converts he needs to get his provision through the Senate. The Republican-controlled House would likely prove even less receptive.
Manchin and other Democrats might come to realize it isn’t politically feasible to sell gun control legislation in an era of safer streets. Or they could bet the raft of new data undercutting their case won’t change the broad public consensus supporting stronger background checks. In a poll, Pew revealed that only 12 percent of Americans think there’s less gun crime than 20 years ago; 56 percent believe, incorrectly, that there’s more.