America the violent? No more

In the debate over gun violence, one of the most often heard assertions is that the U.S. has developed “a culture of violence,” and that it is this culture that is driving the recent increase in mass shootings. In essence, the proponents of this argument suggest that the violence seen in modern media and games brought about by fictional guns is leading to an increase in the deadly use of real guns in our society. 

A look at the data, however, suggests that the opposite of this assertion is true. Over the past 20 years, while media consumption of the average American has soared — due in part to advances in technology — violent crimes of all kinds have plummeted. In 1991, the U.S. experienced 758.2 instances of violent crime per 100,000 people. In 2011, it was 386.3 — half of what it was just 22 years ago.  

 The decline has been particularly dramatic in many urban areas. A survey of FBI crime data shows that violent crime rates, from their respective peaks to 2010, have fallen 75 percent in New York and 60 percent in Boston, for example. The violent crime rate in San Diego today is a third of what it was at its peak, Denver’s rate stands at nearly half, and Dallas’s rate has fallen 70 percent. Locally, Washington has seen its rate fall by more than half. 

Let’s look at the decreased violence in perhaps the most palpable way: murder rates. At their peak, the murder rate for San Diego was more than six times what it was in 2010, New York’s was 4.5 times greater, Boston’s was more than double, Denver’s was four times the rate and Dallas’s was nearly four times higher, with Washington’s rate 4.5 times greater. In raw numbers, D.C. has seen the number of murders drop from 434 in 1993 to just 88 in 2012.  

This precipitous decline in violent crime in the U.S. over the past 20 years needs to be seen as one of the truly great public policy achievements of the post-World War II era. It is remarkable and astonishing, particularly given the historically high rates of immigration we’ve experienced during much of this time and the very tough economic conditions faced by far too many for the past 12 years — two factors normally associated with rising rates of crime and reduced social cohesion. The assertion by some that there is a rising tide of violence in the U.S. just isn’t true, and it serves to obscure a truly great societal achievement brought about by our law enforcement officials, politicians and courageous community leaders across the country. 

In our review of the data, we did find one measure of violent crime that did increase in recent years — the number of people admitted to hospitals with gunshot wounds. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, 20,844 people suffered gunshot wounds that required a hospital stay in 2001. In 2011, despite declining incidents of violent crime, that number jumped to 30,759.  

What this cursory review of the data shows is that during a period of explosive growth of all forms of media consumption, violent crime in America has plunged. Our society is far less violent today than in a previous period of far less media usage. But what has increased, at least in some measure, is gun violence. This is not really hard to explain — while violent crime of all kinds has gone down, our gun laws have liberalized and the number of guns in the U.S. has skyrocketed. A much more permissive climate toward guns has resulted, not surprisingly, in more gun-related violence in the U.S. despite plunging overall violent crime rates. 

What does analysis mean for the gun violence debate? To us, it is clear — if you want to reduce the rising tide of gun violence in the U.S., you have to focus on the new, much more permissive availability of guns themselves and their enhanced lethality. As we move forward in this debate about gun violence, the focus needs to be on the real guns killing and injuring Americans of all kinds — not the fictional ones in our movies and our games.

Rosenberg is the president of NDN/NPI, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Bowman is a writer there.