Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware

Chapter 5: Context

Crime News

Americans are hearing less about crime these days on their local television newscasts than they did a few years ago, but crime remains a common type of story on these local broadcasts, trailing only traffic and weather.

According to the “The State of the News Media 2013” report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, crime accounted for 17% of the total time devoted to news on local broadcasts in 2012, compared with 29% in 2005. The largest component of local newscasts, traffic and weather stories, accounted for 29% of local newscast content in 2012, compared with 25% in 2005.

Looking at the national newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC, crime news grew somewhat as a percentage of the network TV evening time devoted to news, to 9% in 2012 from 7% in 2007.

Crime coverage on the morning network shows grew to 14% of the time devoted to news in 2012, compared with 9% in 2007. This was due largely to stories about the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin coverage also was a factor in the growth of crime coverage on the evening news.

News stories about fatal shootings were among the coverage most closely followed by the public in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index. The fatal mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., ranked second in public attention, behind the presidential election, with 57% of Americans saying they followed the story very closely. The mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater ranked fifth, with 48% following it very closely. The Trayvon Martin shooting ranked 11th, with 35% of Americans saying they tracked the story very closely (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2012).

More recently, 39% of Americans say they followed very closely the debate about gun control in late April, the week the Senate rejected gun control legislation. It was the second most closely followed story from April 18 to 21, following the bombings at the Boston marathon (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2013).

Public Priority to Crime

When it comes to the public’s priorities for the president and Congress, reducing crime has rebounded as a top concern. In a Pew Research Center survey in January, the month after the mass shooting in Newtown, 55% of Americans called crime reduction a top priority for Washington (Pew Research Center, January 2013). Two years ago, in 2011, just 44% said so. However, the share is much lower than it was in Pew Research Center surveys in the early 1990s or 2000s, when three-quarters or more said reducing crime should be a top priority.

Strengthening gun control laws was rated a top priority for officials in Washington by 37% of Americans in the January Pew Research Center survey. Gun control had last been included in the annual public priorities survey in 2001; in the survey that year, 47% of Americans called it a top priority.

Gun Ownership

The number of firearms available for sale to or possessed by U.S. civilians has grown in recent years, according to the Congressional Research Service and other research. A 2012 CRS report estimated that about 310 million firearms were available to or owned by civilians in the U.S. in 2009—114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns (Congressional Research Service, 2012). The figure was derived from manufacturing, export and import data published by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The 2009 per capita rate of one person per gun in the U.S. had roughly doubled since 1968, the report said.

The 2007 Small Arms Survey, conducted by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (Completing the Count, 2007), estimated that 270 million firearms were owned by private citizens in the U.S. that year,13 or about 90 firearms per 100 people. The Small Arms Survey relied on ATF data and independent surveys.

It is not clear, however, how many U.S. households owned guns or whether the share of gun-owning U.S. households has changed over time.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey (Pew Research Center, March 2013) 37% of adults say they or someone else in their household owns a firearm of some kind. The 2012 General Social Survey (GSS) reports 34% do. However, a Gallup survey in 2012 found that 43% of respondents said there was at least one gun in their household.

As for whether gun ownership is rising or falling, the GSS reports a long trend of decline. In 1973, about half of households (49%) owned firearms, according to GSS data. Gallup survey data indicates that the share of households with guns is the same now as in 1972 (43%), although there was a dip in gun ownership in the 1990s.

Respondent error or misstatement in surveys about gun ownership is a widely acknowledged concern of researchers. People may be reluctant to disclose ownership, especially if they are concerned that there may be future restrictions on gun possession or if they acquired their firearms illegally. For whatever reason, husbands are more likely than wives to say there is a firearm in their households (Wright et al., 2012). Household surveys do not cover all gun ownership; they include only firearms owned by people in households.

As a 2004 National Academy of Sciences review stated, “Concerns about response errors in self-reported surveys of firearms possession and use require much more systematic research before surveys can be judged to provide accurate data to address critical issues in the study of firearms and violence. … Without systematic research on these specific matters, scientists can only speculate” (National Research Council, 2004).

International Context

How do U.S. gun ownership or gun crime compare with those in other nations? Although international data collection suffers from the same problems as gathering information about guns in the U.S., most research agrees that civilians in the United States own more firearms both total and per capita than those in any other nation.

The Small Arms Survey in 2007 found not only that U.S. civilians had more total firearms than any other nation (270 million) but also that the rate of ownership (about 90 firearms for every 100 people) was higher than in other countries. “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to 35-50 per cent of the world’s civilian-owned guns,” according to the survey, which included estimates for 178 countries.

As for gun crime, research has found that the U.S. has a higher gun homicide and overall homicide rate than most developed nations, although the U.S. does not have the world’s highest rate for either. The U.S. does not outrank other developed nations for overall crime, but crimes with firearms are more likely to occur in the U.S. (Van Dijk, et al., 2007).

The United Nations Global Study on Homicide (UNODC, 2011) estimated that 199,000 homicides, or 42% of the 468,000 worldwide total in 2010, were committed by firearm.

According to U.N. statistics, the U.S. firearm homicide rate and overall homicide rate are higher than those in Canada and in Western European and Scandinavian nations, but lower than those in many Caribbean and Latin American countries for which data are available.

Where does the U.S. rank internationally in terms of gun crime of all types? A report that compared 2003-2004 victimization survey data for 30 countries, including most developed nations, found that the U.S. ranked about average in an overall index of common crimes (Van Dijk et al., 2007).

However, the report placed the U.S. among the top countries for attacks involving firearms. “Mexico, the USA and Northern Ireland stand out with the highest percentages gun-related attacks (16%, 6% and 6% respectively).” The U.S. had the highest share of sexual assault involving guns.

  1. The CRS report estimated that civilians had 294 million firearms available for sale or owned in 2007.
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