The rate of gun-related murders has dropped by almost half since the early 1990s, even though more than eight of 10 Americans wrongly say otherwise, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
The report, released amid a nationwide debate over whether to enact new measures to curb firearms violence, shows that gun-related deaths peaked in 1993 at seven deaths per 100,000 Americans before descending rapidly to 3.8 deaths per 100,000 by 2000. By 2010, Pew found, the rate had fallen to 3.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
Yet 56 percent of Americans say gun crime is higher than it was in 1993, while 26 percent said it’s the same, according to the survey released yesterday by the Washington-based group. Just 12 percent told Pew the rate was lower.
“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,” the study said.
The mass shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in December boosted support for gun-control legislation, according to another Pew poll, taken in January. Legislation supported by the White House that would have tightened background checks for gun purchases was defeated in the U.S. Senate last month; Democrats are trying to revive the measure.
The study didn’t offer conclusions about the reasons for the decline in gun violence. The center cited a handful of possible reasons, such as a periodically healthy economy, the aging of the Baby Boom generation, stricter laws that resulted in more prison time for criminals, increased access to abortion, and decreased childhood exposure to lead.
Pew said some research shows that children’s exposure to lead causes brain damage that could be linked to violent behavior.
Almost two-thirds of women surveyed by Pew were likely to be mistaken in thinking that long-term gun crime had increased; about 46 percent of men thought the numbers had been climbing.
About half of adults older than 30 and more than 60 percent of minorities also erroneously believed gun crime has climbed, Pew said. Forty-four percent of adults younger than 30 and 53 percent of whites thought firearms-related violence has been increasing.
“It’s interesting that some of the groups least likely to be victims of gun-related crime are most likely to say that the numbers are up,” said D’Vera Cohn, a Pew senior writer and co-author of the report.
There were 11,078 gun homicides in 2010, according to the report. Firearms-related homicides are currently the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., after car accidents, unintentional poisoning, falls and gun-related suicides.
The decrease in gun-related homicides has been partially offset by suicides involving firearms. The number of gun-related suicides has outstripped the number of killings with firearms since 1981. There were 19,392 gun-related suicides in 2010.
Men made up 87 percent of all gun-related suicides in 2010, Pew found. The suicide rate for males was 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people, more than seven times the number for women, who killed themselves with guns at a rate of 1.5 deaths per 100,000 people.
Pew reported that people older than 65 were most likely to kill themselves with guns. The rate of gun-related suicides among people between the ages of 41 and 64 grew in 2010 to its highest rate since 1990, at 8.9 deaths per 100,000 people.
Whites were more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by others. Hispanics and blacks were more likely to be the victims of homicides than to kill themselves.
There were 3.6 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people in 2010, a 49 percent decrease from the 7 killings per 100,000 recorded in 1993. The rate of non-fatal violent crimes committed with a gun fell during the same period to 181.5 victims per 100,000 people, down 75 percent from 725.3.
Blacks, who make up 13 percent of the population, accounted for 55 percent of firearms-related killings in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by Pew.
The poll, taken March 14-17, has a 3.9 percent margin of error.