The recent shooting massacre in Aurora, Colo., has fed into a perception that America is becoming increasingly violent amid a gluttonous gun craze. Actually, the opposite is true, Patrick Egan, assistant professor of politics and public policy at New York University, points out in a post for The Monkey Cage, a political science blog.
In the wake of the national tragedy in Colorado, Egan wrote that pundits have reached for explanations, with some blaming weak gun laws or the power of the gun lobby, while others talking about a cultural decline.
Over the weekend, for instance, PBS' Bill Moyers posted a video in which he called the National Rifle Association "the best friend the killer's instinct could ever have" and "the enabler of death – paranoid, delusional and as venomous as a scorpion."
Moyers decried the number of gun owners and the amount of violence in the United States.
"We have become so gun loving, so blasé about home-grown violence that in my lifetime alone, far more Americans have been casualties of domestic gunfire than have died in all our wars combined," Moyers said.
On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, Time Magazine political columnist Joe Klein complained about "the incredible pornographic violence that has crept into our culture in terms of the entertainment business," noting that the shootings in Colorado happened in a theatre showing "The Dark Knight Rises," which contains much violence.
Pundits, though, "would do well to keep in mind two fundamental trends about violence and guns in America that are going unmentioned in the reporting on Aurora," Egan wrote in a guest post on the political science blog.
The two trends that Egan points to are that violence is at a 40-year low and gun ownership is at or near an all-time low.
Using the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, Egan shows that the violent crime rate is the lowest it has been since 1972, and the murder rate is at its lowest since the early 1960's (see graph, Violence in America, 1960-2010). Additionally, the General Social Survey shows a significant drop in the proportion of Americans who say they are afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhood.
Gun ownership is also at or near all-time lows, Egan shows using GSS data and Gallup polls (see graph, Gun Ownership in America, 1959-2010).
In the 1970s about half the nation lived in a home that had at least one gun. Today, only about one-third do.
"Thus long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns and violence in the United States," Egan concludes. "This is undoubtedly helping to dampen the public's support for both gun control and the death penalty.
"There are growing partisan gaps on attitudes regarding the two policies, but enthusiasm for both has declined recently in lockstep with the drop in crime and violence. The total effects of these trends on opinion and policy remain to be seen, but one thing is clear: they defy easy ideological explanation."