The horrific massacre in Newton, Connecticut, is to sparking debate about guns and violence, as well it should. As the discussion gets underway, I think it is helpful to get a sense of where we stand in the flow of history as it relates to violence in the United States. Here are a few things to consider.
Below is data from the most recent FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR). The annual report compiles reported crimes. It strength is the use of hard data. Its biggest weakness is the absence of unreported crime. The willingness of people to report crime varies by type of crime and their willingness to report may change over time. Also, law enforcement’s diligence with different types of crime may change over time. Tougher enforcement can lead to fewer incidents of actual crime, even as incidents of reported crime rise. Nevertheless, the UCR is an important measure.
Crimes are grouped in two categories:
- Violent - murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
- Property - burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
Violent crime is at a forty year low.
A second measure is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Twice a year, surveys ask members of households if they have been victims of particular crimes, reported or not. The strength of the survey is that it captures unreported crime. A weakness may be that some crimes, like domestic violence, are underreported.
The NCVS is also broken into two categories:
- Violent - rape, robbery, and assault.
- Property - burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.
(A different methodology was used in 2006 that makes it incomparable with other years. Also, 2011 data has been published and shows an uptick in crime. However, the 2002 and 2010 data in the recent report, used as comparison points, do not match earlier publications and I have yet to determine why. I chose not to include it here until I have a better understanding.)
An interesting question: Was there truly less crime fifty years ago or were people simply less likely to report crimes? I doubt there is a definitive answer. Murder is sometimes used as a proxy for overall violence in society. Here is the United States murder rate per 100,000 population:
Additionally, there is this estimation of the murder rate over the last 300 years. (Source: The Public Intellectual)
It can conclusively be said that that violence in American society is not spiraling out of control. We are living in one of the least violent eras in American history. But this is not the whole story.
Duke sociologist Kiern Healy published this graph a few months ago. (Source: America Is a Violent Country)
The 4.7 homicide rate for the United States is a near record low but it is still two or three times the rate of other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations. Guns are a big part of this difference. The good news is the precipitous decline in aggravated deaths. The bad news is how much more violence there is in the United States compared to other nations, even at all-time lows.
The final issue is the number of mass shootings. The Associated Press had this article No rise in mass killings, but their impact is huge. The article notes:
… And yet those who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common.
"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices.
The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer. …
… Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.
Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.
Still, he understands the public perception - and extensive media coverage - when mass shootings occur in places like malls and schools. "There is this feeling that could have been me. It makes it so much more frightening." …
Here is a graph showing mass public murders (defined as four or more murders in a 24 hour period) by decade over the past 100 years. (Source: Opinion: The Rise and Decline of Mass Shootings – Grant Duwe)
This data was reported in March of 2010. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, Deadliest U.S. mass shootings, there have been nine mass shootings in the United States in the first three years of this decade. That projects out to thirty for this decade. But there have been five mass shootings in the last five months. There clearly has been an uptick in mass shootings over the past year.
On a final note, the Sandy Hook massacre involved young children at school. Over the past twenty years, the number of children 5-18 years old murdered at school has ranged from a low of 14 (school years ending in 2000 and in 2001) and a high of 34 (schools years ending 1993 and in 1998.) (Source: Indicators of School Safety: 2011) According to an article in the Guardian, Mass shootings at schools and universities in the US – timeline, over the last fifty years there have been six school mass shootings (including Sandy Hook) that have taken the lives of children 5-18. Three of the mass shootings were at primary schools (Stockton, CA, in 1989; Nickel Mines, PA, 2006; and now Sandy Hook.)
So here are a few observations and comments:
- The United States has an excessively violent culture.
- Violence has lessened significantly in recent years. We are not spiraling into chaos.
- Guns are an important factor in the excessive homicide rates. I don't know why citizens need to own semi-automatic weapons. But there is more than access to these guns that needs to be addressed here.
- While a case can be made that mass murders have been declining in the long run, the sudden frequency of them in recent months is alarming (five in five months).
- Nothing that is said above should take away from our outrage at the senseless death of innocent children and their teachers. But Friday’s shooting should not send us into despair that things are spiraling out of control. Friday’s shooting should motivate us to ask anew how we can accelerate our march toward becoming a less violent society.
Update: You may also want to see 6 Timelines That Explain America's Persistent Gun Culture