The US homicide rate in 2014, the most recent year available, was 4.5 per 100,000. The 2014 total follows a long downward trend and is the lowest homicide rate recorded since 1963 when the rate was 4.6 per 100,000. To find a lower homicide rate, we must travel back to 1957 when the total homicide rate hit 4.0 per 100,000.
Homicide rates were considerably higher in the United States during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, but over the past 25 years, have fallen nearly continuously:
Ask the average American if crime is falling in the United States, however, and you’re unlikely to hear about how homicide is at a 50-year low.
Public Unaware that Homicide Rates Have Fallen
As Pew has reported in recent years, in fact, the American public is “unaware” that the homicide rate in the United States has fallen by 49 percent over the past twenty years. And while Pew doesn’t report on it, it’s also a safe bet that the public is also unaware that homicide rates have collapsed as total gun ownership in the United States has increased significantly.
Over a recent 20 year period, the number of new guns in the US that were either manufactured in the US or imported into the US increased 141 percent from 6.6 million new guns in 1994 to 16 million in 2013. That means a gross total of 132 million new guns were added into the US population over that time period.
So, do more guns equal more crime? The data would seem to indicate the answer is “obviously not.” (For more on this, see here.)
Naturally, these facts are steadfastly ignored by people who can’t do basic arithmetic, like the constitutional law Professor David S. Cohen who wrote Monday at Rolling Stone that the second Amendment must be repealed because it is “a threat to liberty” and a “suicide pact.”
Cohen’s argument rests largely on the idea that gun violence it out of control and that guns are different now than they were in the 18th century. One cannot argue with the former part. But are guns significantly different today from what they were twenty years ago? Clearly, the answer to that is no, and given that homicide rates have plummeted since then, Cohen needs to explain why repealing the second Amendment is advisable when increases in gun ownership have coincided with declines in homicides.
Moreover, we must ask ourselves if the US was engaged in a “suicide pact” in the 1940s and 1950s when homicide rates where at historic lows, when the Second Amendment existed, and when gun control measures were very weak by modern standards.
But what about the murders at the Pulse club last weekend? Won’t that cause homicide rates to go back up? Anyone familiar with math, of course, will know that in a country of 300 million people a mass shooting like this will have virtually no effect on overall homicide rates at all. But even if we pull out Florida specifically, homicide rates will remain well below what they were in the 1980s even if we include last weekend’s murders. For example, in 2014, there were 1,149 homicides in Florida. That’s out of a population of 20.2 million people, for a homicide rate of about 5.6 per 100,000. In 1984 — a fairly average year for homicide in Florida in those days — there were 1,264 homicides in a population of 11 million. That comes out to a homicide rate of 11.4 per 100,000. (The nation at the time had a homicide rate of about 7.9 per 100,000)
Now, I’m not saying that homicides are no big deal if the trend is downward. Nor am I saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to drive the homicide rate even lower. However, panicky claims that the US has entered into a suicide pact or that the nation is on the precipice of violent implosion are simply not grounded in reality.
Making State-to-State Comparisons
We have demonstrated that trends over time do not lend much help to the idea that the availability of guns have increased homicide rates. Nor is there any clear help for the gun control argument if we look at homicide rates on a state-by-state basis. Indeed, some states with the least restrictive gun laws, such as New Hampshire, Vermont, and Idaho, have some of the lowest homicide rates found anywhere in the world. And, even more slightly more restrictive states like Minnesota and Colorado have very low homicide rates. (For more on this, see my article “With Few Gun Laws, New Hampshire Is Safer than Canada.”)
Gun control advocates like to point to Canada as a model for more restrictive gun laws, but what we find is that as states become more like Canada in terms of demographics and climate, they have more similar homicide rates. So, many states that border Canada have gun laws far more permissive than anything found in Canada — but have similar homicide rates.
We also fail to find support for gun-control claims along the southern border as well. Mexico has far more restrictive gun laws than the United States, and even when we take “informal” (i.e., illegal) gun ownership into account, there are still fewer private guns in Mexico than in the United States. And yet cities and counties that border Mexico tend to have much, much lower homicide rates. The city of El Paso Texas, for example, which is of course within the jurisdiction of Texas’s lax gun laws, has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world, at a mere 0.6 per 100,000 (as of 2012). El Paso has long been considered to be one of the safest cities in North America (and one of the most Hispanic cities, as well). Notably, El Paso is within easy walking distance of Chihuahua State in Mexico where homicide rates are among the worst in the world, and where gun laws are extremely restrictive. (For more on this see my article “Borderland Homicides Show Mexico’s Gun Control Has Failed“.)
Source: Center for Global Development.
Many advocates for gun control employ their usual soft bigotry of low expectations and claim that Mexicans could never be expected to behave like people in “advanced” countries, thus no comparisons are allowed. Naturally, no standard for why one North American country cannot be compared to another is ever provided. But if we do allow ourselves to believe that Mexican are, in fact, full-fledged human beings, we will make a comparison and wonder why gun-tolerant Texas is so much more peaceful than gun-restrictive Mexico. (For more on this, see my article “The Mistake of Only Comparing US Murder Rates to ‘Developed’ Countries“.)
Mass Shootings as a “Special” Kind of Murder
The most recent strategy employed nowadays to whip up sentiment against gun ownership is by redefining mass shootings as some kind of “special” type of murder. “Yes, homicide rates have been going down,” they admit, “but mass shootings are now an epidemic!”
If there are 49 percent fewer homicides nowadays compared to twenty years ago, it is a bit disingenuous to imply that homicides are actually going up because the rare events knows as mass shootings are claimed to be more common. Victims of mass shootings are not more dead than other homicide victims. If the goal is to decrease homicide, we must first ask ourselves why the conditions that coincided with falling homicide rates (i.e., increasing gun ownership) should be abolished all the name of reducing one specific kind of homicide.
Moreover, it is untrue that the US is unique in the occurrence of mass shootings. The claim is so far from accurate that even Politifact rates the claim as “mostly false.” One can only even begin to make the claim if one conveniently excludes mass shootings in Europe (such as the Paris attacks) as “terrorism” while defining similar acts in the US (i.e., the San Bernardino and Orlando killings) as generic “mass shootings.” Similarly, it’s also disingenuous to ignore other forms of mass homicide that occur when the murderers use means other than guns. The 2002 Bali bombings at a night club, for example, killed more than 200 people. But never mind that, we’re told. Just focus on mass shootings. Also, ignore killings like the 1995 Ohlahoma City bombing and the Boston Marathon bombings. Although some components of fertilizer bombs are monitored, it’s still perfectly legal to buy the means to carry out those killings.
In order to accept mass shootings as the only important metric on homicide nowadays, we must ignore countless facts about the context and trends in homicide. But, there’s no reason why we should do this. Indeed, a small number of mass homicides should be easier to deal with than a larger number of non-mass homicides. As I discuss here and here, mass homicides tend to occur at very specific locations where large numbers of people congregate, and the obvious answer would be to address security at those specific places.
Many gun control advocates think they’re being clever when they point out that policymakers “banned” box cutters and liquids. “So let’s ban semi-automatic rifles!” Take this meme being passed around by left-wing Facebook groups:
The problem with this claim should be immediately obvious. Box cutters and liquids were banned from commercial airplanes. Nearly 100% of adult Americans still own bottles of liquids and knife-like objects such as box cutters. Few people would argue that there’s anything wrong with banning unauthorized personnel with carrying semi-automatic rifles in preschools and dance clubs. It’s something that can be achieved with private security, and we would be well-advised to beef it up in places that are likely to be targets of mass shootings.