It is widely believed that modern society is in sharp decline. Crime, especially, is widely considered to be steadily soaring out of control. American politicians frequently join the fray, using the crime issue to assert various political points. For example,
- Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is an advocate of the death penalty, but hopes to address an "unacceptable" increase in incarceration.
- In 2007, Republican Jeb Bush declared, "The simple fact is we are not safe. Not in our homes. Not anywhere." More recently, according to the New York Times, he supports reforming the criminal justice system, fearing that incarceration can harden low-level lawbreakers.
- Texas Governor Rick Perry regards the death penalty as appropriate for those who kill police officers or children. He has proposed life imprisonment without parole for certain categories of sex offenses.
- Ted Cruz supports the death penalty and opposes gun control, although he favors converting some regulatory crimes into civil offenses.
- Marco Rubio argues that the U.S. deserves a criminal justice system that is "fair and just".
- Casino mogul Donald Trump recently declared that Latino immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
Similar rhetoric is not uncommon in other OECD countries, most of which have much lower crime rates than the U.S.
Just the facts, ma'm
As mentioned above, it is widely assumed that crime is increasing, and is prima facie evidence of a breakdown of public order and private morality.
Yet the facts point in quite the opposite direction. Indeed, the latest U.S. crime data has stunned even the most optimistic of observers. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2013 (the most recent year for which a full report is available) the violent crime rate is down 4.4 percent from 2012, and the property crime rate is down 4.1 percent from 2012. Similar year-to-year declines have continued for at nearly 20 years. These rates are down by more than a factor of two since peaking in the early 1990s.
Interestingly, the largest U.S. cities have seen some of the largest percentage declines. In 2014, 328 persons were murdered in New York City. Yet this figure is down a breathtaking 85 percent since 1990, when 2245 homicides were recorded. Chicago's 2014 figure of 392 homicides is down 58 percent from 1991, when 922 homicides were recorded. The 2014 Los Angeles figure of 264 homicides is down 76 percent from 1992, when 1092 homicides were recorded, even though its population has increased from 3.4 million to 3.9 million during this time. The latest homicide figures for these cities are the lowest since solid data began to be collected in the 1960s.
Crime has declined in many other major western nations, although not quite as dramatically as in the U.S. According to The Economist, among the G-7 nations of Europe, robbery rates declined 21 percent from 1995 to 2010; homicide rates declined 32 percent (from already low levels); and vehicle theft fell 46 percent. In England and Wales, for instance, 400,000 cars were stolen in 1997, but only 86,000 in 2012.
This decline in crime has confounded criminologists, both in North America and Europe. Some of this decline is undoubtedly due to demographic factors (fewer 16- to 24-year-olds). But crime continues to fall in some areas, such as London, where this age bracket has recently started to grow again, and the sheer magnitude of the decline in cities such as Los Angeles and New York City cannot remotely be ascribed merely to demographics.
Others have suggested that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s has reduced crime, by reducing the number of youngsters growing up in poor environments. But crime rates have continued to fall in the U.S. long after the post-Roe-vs-Wade cohort passed through the 16- to 24-year-old age bracket, and they have also fallen in Canada and the U.K., where abortion was legalized long ago. Better policing and law enforcement may be helping, but again cannot be more than a partial explanation.
Harvard social scientist Steven Pinker has documented this decline in detail. He argues argues that people worldwide, especially in major first-world nations, are becoming fundamentally more averse to crime, especially violent crime. But whatever the explanation, the breadth and magnitude of these statistical facts can no longer be ignored.
Along this line, with respect to immigrants, the Pew Research Center has found that first-generation immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to be guilty of crime.
Guns and crime
Gun control is a particularly testy issue in the U.S., a fact that most other first-world nations find incomprehensible. In spite of a rash of high-profile multiple killings in the past two or three years, most Americans remain hostile to any further restrictions on guns. It is widely believed that communities are safer where citizens are free to purchase weapons to defend themselves.
Among U.S. presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton stands alone in arguing that access to guns is out of balance. In contrast, most Republican contenders are firmly against gun control. Ted Cruz, ignoring the evidence, says, "If you look at the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws, almost without exception, they have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates." Donald Trump has said flatly, "I am against gun control."
Just the facts, ma'm
Again, we can ask what are the facts here. Are communities with relatively free access to guns safer places to live?
To check this hypothesis, the present authors collected data from the 2013 FBI crime report (the most recent year for which a full report is available), and combined it with information on gun control laws by state, and the official results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election.
When one examines the 48 metropolitan areas with one million or more residents and for which a full set of FBI crime statistics are available, homicide rates range from 1.4 per 100,000 residents in the Portland, Oregon area, to 19 per 100,000 in the New Orleans area. Burglary rates range from 248 per 100,000 in the New York City area (often considered to be a relatively high-crime area) to 1196 per 100,000 in the Memphis, Tennessee area (often considered to be a relatively low-crime area). So much for preconceived notions!
So is there any correlation between gun control and either violent or property crime in these 48 metropolitan areas?
The overall homicide rate, among the metro areas whose principal city is in a state that requires some form of permit to purchase a gun, is 4.32 per 100,000 residents, compared with 5.74 among cities in no-permit states. This certainly does not confirm the gun control = higher violent crime hypothesis. Quite the opposite.
Similarly, the overall burglary rate, among the metro areas whose principal city is in a state that requires some form of permit to purchase a gun, is 442 per 100,000 residents, compared with 690 among cities in no-permit states. As before, the rate is somewhat higher in no-permit areas, although given the limitations of this analysis we caution against drawing any conclusions beyond the simple fact that no-permit areas clearly do not have lower crime rates, overall, than areas where permits are required.
Along this line, how do these statistics correlate with presidential election results? Property crime rates show some correlation with the fraction of the state that voted for Romney in 2012, but when we consider total crimes, this correlation washes away. In other words, to a first approximation, there is no correlation between crime rates and whether the metro area is in a "blue state" or a "red state."
There is, however, a connection with "right-to-carry" laws, which permit citizens to carry a weapon in various public places. A 2014 Stanford University study found that right-to-carry laws are linked to an increase in violent crime.
In short, the public perception of crime rates soaring out of control is utterly mistaken, not only in the U.S., which has seen a dramatic drop in all categories of crime since the early 1990s, but also in most other first-world nations as well. There are few issues where public perception is so completely out of kilter with the facts. Politicians who use the public's fear of rising crime to promote their agendas are doing a disservice to their constituents, and quite possibly are being disingenuous as well.
Secondly, based on the data mentioned above, there is no indication that communities with stricter gun controls have increased crime rates, either for violent crime or property crime. To the contrary, there is evidence that right-to-carry laws, for instance, are associated with an increase in violent crime.
Will such facts (all of which are very easily obtained and analyzed) result in any major change of public perception or public polivcy? Possibly. For instance, Charles and David Koch, two of Barack Obama's chief political opponents, have recently recommended that federal sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses be relaxed. Even Republican House Speaker John Boehner now backs a bill to reduce sentencing, following the example of several states that have adopted a similar approach to reduce their prison costs.
After all, state and local governments, whether "red" or "blue," actually have to pay for many of the consequences of three strikes laws and other tough-on-crime initiatives of the past thirty years. California, for instance, spends more on prisons than its famed higher education system. This financial reality, not philosophical changes, seems to be leading to more sanity in legislation for the criminal justice system.