POLITICS
05/08/2013 02:05 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2013

Declining Gun Homicide Rate Isn't A Strong Argument Against Expanding Background Checks, Sorry!

According to a new study released Tuesday by Pew Research, the gun homicide rate has declined 49 percent since its peak in 1993. Actually, check that -- a better way of saying this is that a marked downward trend in gun homicides that's been ongoing for 20 years continues apace.

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.

Apparently, the remarkable thing here is that people haven't noticed this. Pew reports that "today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower."

Well, it's not been for want of trying. I still recall the remarkable news that the continued decline in overall crime rates had criminologists a wee bit flummoxed, as they had anticipated that the ongoing recession would lead to a spike. But as someone who frequently has to rebut the notion that the District Of Columbia is some sort of murder capital, I'm pretty familiar with these trends.

At any rate, this Pew research has apparently caused some to wonder if maybe we should stop trying to pass some sort of gun safety legislation.

Obviously, I cannot get inside the minds of Americans to suss out why, precisely, they don't realize that gun homicides, and crime in general, has been on the decline. I didn't think it was possible to miss these trends; obviously, I was wrong. That said, I think I can help here!

What seems to be driving the overall effort to enact gun safety legislation -- and let's recall that many people think it's only possible to enact a small sliver of a fix that would expand background checks -- isn't so much a fear of gun homicides. Rather, it's worry over mass shootings. And a belated one at that -- it wasn't until the Newtown shooting that this discussion really sparked. In the meantime, as far as gun homicides go, we're still talking about more than 11,000 occurences in 2011.

And mass shootings have been enjoying something of a renaissance in America. If you go back on a similar timeline created by Mother Jones, you'll see that incidents of mass shootings come and go, in peaks and valleys. Between 1998 and 1999, there were eight such incidents -- the Columbine High School shootings took place during this time, as did the well-reported shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., and the Wedgwood Baptist Church shootings in Fort Worth, Texas. Between 2000 and 2005, on the other hand, there was relative peace from these sorts of crimes -- only six took place during that half-decade.

Between 2007 and today, however, the story is more dire. Aside from the year 2010, in which there was only one mass shooting, there have been a minimum of three mass shooting incidents each year during that time frame. And 2012 was an especially horrific period -- seven incidents in total, concluding with the Newtown school shooting.

So, the desire for policy changes -- modest though they may be -- really have very little to do with declining rates of gun homicides overall. Instead, they have to do with the fact that gun deaths steadfastly remain at unacceptably high levels, with a concomitant uptick in incidents of horrific mass gun-related violence.

Naturally, one can argue whether or not it's wise to use fearfulness as a motivator to create policy (Patriot Act, anyone?). And it's perfectly reasonable to debate whether or not the proposed measures will end up having an impact on the problem they purport to ameliorate. (It seems to me that we are having this debate, actually.)

But to argue that because "THING X" is "in decline," we should simply stop worrying about "THING X," and that those who continue to evince concern over "THING X" are either foolish or being somehow deceptive is a pretty stupid argument to make. Here is a list of things that are in marked decline, which I do not think anyone is going to simply stop worrying about anytime soon!

--U.S. infant mortality rates are on the decline, but I have a feeling people want to do better.
--U.S. cancer death rates are on the decline, so we can chillax about cancer, I guess.
--U.S. abortion rates are on the decline, which explains why no one frets about abortion anymore, at all!
--In case you haven't noticed, the unemployment rate has been in decline, so no worries, it's all good.

Oh, and the deficits are falling really, really rapidly, too, so I guess I don't need to hear any more panic about that, right? (Actually, I guess I really wouldn't mind that, at least in the short term. Once we're back to something that looks like full employment, let's talk.)

At any rate, let's sum up. Incidents of mass shootings are driving the current push for gun safety legislation. There's a perfectly reasonable debate to be had over whether or not the policy proposals on the table will effectively solve the problems they purport to solve. But a declining rate of a thing is not an argument against policies that may result in further declines and better outcomes. For that matter, mass shootings are not in decline, so the point is moot. And I daresay that the families of the thousands of people who will be killed this year in gun homicides are going to take very little comfort from the fact that they ended up on the bad side of a fortunate 20-year trend.

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