As the political debate over gun control heats up in the aftermath of the mass killing in Aurora, Colo., here are three important trends to keep in mind: Criminal violence in America has dropped to levels not seen in more than a generation, the percentage of Americans owning guns is down and public support for gun control measures has plummeted as well.
Do fewer Americans own guns now because crime has dropped so much? Or has crime dropped in part because fewer Americans own guns? Has support for gun control gone down because fewer Americans are experiencing gun violence in their daily lives, or because of other factors, particularly partisan differences? Each of those questions is a matter for debate.
The underlying trends, however, are not.
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Start with the first one: Mass killings such as the one that took place in Aurora deservedly attract huge amounts of attention for the trauma they inflict on a community. But they are, thankfully, very rare events. Overall, the rate of violent crime in the United States, much of it gun-related, peaked around 1990 after rising steadily through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Crime and violence have now declined nationwide and in almost all the country’s largest cities for more than two decades.
That shift to a more peaceful society has transformed whole sections of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other major urban centers, allowing a renaissance of urban life that has been a striking social change.
The decline in gun ownership began some years earlier, according to data from Gallup and the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. New York University political scientist Patrick Egan charted the decline in a recent blog post.
As Egan notes, the percentage of Americans who report owning a pistol or shotgun, the weapons most often used in crime, is now down to 1 in 5, about half what it was in the 1970s.
Of course, hardened criminals aren’t likely to respond to the GSS survey, so there’s probably some under-reporting going on. But that was true 30 or 40 years ago, too, and isn’t likely to have affected the overall trend.
The major point is that the American “culture of gun ownership” that one often hears about has been strikingly on the wane for the past generation. A similar decline has taken place in the number of Americans who hunt, now about 5% of the population.
With a decline in the percentage of Americans who own guns and the percentage who hunt, one might have expected support for gun control to go up. Instead, it has gone down. As polling analyst Mark Blumenthal recently showed, data from Gallup, the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post/ABC News polls all show the same trend of declining support since at least the early 1990s, except for a brief spike after the Columbine school shootings in Colorado.
No doubt, the vigorous efforts by the National Rifle Assn. and other pro-gun groups have something to do with that shift in public opinion. But two other factors may play a significant role. One is the decline in crime; the other is the rise in political partisanship.
The drop in public support for gun control has happened at the same time that crime has dropped. Perhaps that’s coincidental, but the parallel nature of the two trends is striking.
What’s not coincidental is the shift in the partisan divide on the issue of guns. As the surveys by Pew show, the views of Democrats on the issue have remained fairly consistent -- since the early 1990s, between 25% and 30% of self-identified Democrats have put a higher priority on “protecting the rights of Americans to own guns” than on measures to “control gun ownership.” Among Republicans and independents, however, opinion has shifted. More than half of independents now put a higher priority on gun rights. And among self-identified Republicans, support for gun rights has become overwhelming, with almost 3 in 4 taking that side of the issue, up from fewer than half two decades ago.