The U.S. gun homicide rate has dropped sharply in the past 20 years, but few Americans are aware of the decline, according to a Pew poll released this week.

The rate of firearm homicide in 2010 was down 49 percent from its peak in 1993, according to Pew, while the rate of nonfatal violent crime involving guns was 75 percent lower in 2011 than in 1993. In both cases, the bulk of the decline took place during the 1990s.

A separate Department of Justice study, also released this week, showed similar figures, with firearm homicides dropping 39 percent, largely between 1993 and 1998.

Public perception hasn't kept pace. According to the Pew poll, 56 percent of Americans said gun crimes had increased in the past 20 years, while 26 percent thought the number had stayed the same, and just 12 percent said it had gone down.

Concern about fighting crime, however, is lower than in previous years. In a January Pew survey, conducted about a month after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., only 55 percent said crime reduction should be a top priority in Washington, down from 78 percent in 1994.

From Pew's report:

Researchers have studied the decline in firearm crime and violent crime for many years, and though there are theories to explain the decline, there is no consensus among those who study the issue as to why it happened.

There also is debate about the extent of gun ownership in the U.S., although no disagreement that the U.S. has more civilian firearms, both total and per capita, than other nations. Compared with other developed nations, the U.S. has a higher homicide rate and higher rates of gun ownership, but not higher rates for all other crimes.

According to Pew, 31,672 deaths from guns were reported in the U.S. in 2010, 60 percent of which were suicides.

The Pew report's data on homicides and deaths came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while the estimates of crime numbers came from the U.S. Census Bureau's National Crime Victimization Survey. The poll of Americans' impressions about crime was conducted between March 14 and 17, and surveyed 924 people using live telephone interviews.

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