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Gun crime has plunged, but Americans think it's up, study says

More than half of Americans think gun crime has jumped, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report noted. Researchers aren't sure why there's the misperception.

May 07, 2013|By Emily Alpert, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, center, announces a gun buy-back earlier this year.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, center, announces a gun buy-back… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

The number of violent crimes involving guns has plummeted in the last two decades, but more than half of Americans think the opposite is true, according to reports released Tuesday.

Killings, assaults, robberies and other crimes involving guns have dropped since their peak in the mid-1990s, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported.

The rate of killings by gun has been cut nearly in half, according to another analysis of the same data by the Pew Research Center. The rate of other violent gun crimes fell even more sharply, by 75%, paralleling a broader drop in violent crimes committed with or without guns. Violent crime dropped steeply during the 1990s and has fallen less dramatically since the turn of the millennium.

However, guns remain the most common murder weapon in the United States, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report noted. Between 1993 and 2011, more than two out of three killings in the U.S. were carried out with guns, the bureau found.

The facts are at odds with public perception, according to the results of a survey by the Pew center.

Despite the steep drop in gun crime, only 12% of Americans surveyed said they believed crimes with firearms had declined over the last two decades, Pew found in a survey of more than 900 adults this spring. Twenty-six percent said it had stayed the same, and 56% thought it had increased.

Pew researchers say they aren't sure what is driving the misperception, but they noted that the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., were among the news stories most closely followed by Americans last year.

Crime was also a growing focus for national newscasts and morning network shows between 2007 and 2012 but has become less common on local television news during roughly the same period.

"It's hard to know what's going on there," said D'Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center. Women, people of color and the elderly were more likely to believe that gun crime was up than were men, younger adults or white people. The center plans to examine crime issues more closely later this year.

Though violence has dropped, the U.S. still has a higher murder rate than most other developed countries, though not the highest in the world, the Pew study noted. A Swiss research group, the Small Arms Survey, says that the U.S. has more guns per capita than any other country.

Experts debate why overall crime has fallen, attributing the drop to a wide range of causes, such as the decline in crack cocaine use and surging incarceration rates. Some researchers have even linked dropping crime to reduced lead in gasoline, pointing out that lead can cause increased aggression and impulsive behavior in children exposed to it.

The victims of gun killings are overwhelmingly male and disproportionately black, government statistics show. Compared with other parts of the country, the South had the highest rates of gun violence, including both homicides and other violent gun crimes.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

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