A spate of high-profile shootings has left Americans with the perception that gun crimes are on the rise, but a new study shows the opposite appears to be true.
A Pew Research poll released this week found that 56 percent of adults believe that gun crime is more common now than 20 years ago. But a report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics seems to show that crime involving firearms has fallen dramatically over the last 20 years, with the rate of homicides committed with guns cut in half since 1993. The rate of the violent crimes fell even more, and is now just a quarter of what it was.
In the Pew poll of 924 adults, just 12 percent correctly answered that gun crime fell over the last 20 years. Gun rights advocates say media coverage of gun violence has distorted the public perception.
“This doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation told FoxNews.com. “When people respond in opinion polls, it’s shaped from what they’re getting through the network news, The New York Times, The Washington Post. And for them, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ – if there’s a tragedy, that becomes the lead story.”
But supporters of tighter gun control laws say it is modern medicine, not a more peaceable public, that is behind the numbers.
“More people are being shot in America, but fewer people are dying,” Erika Soto Lamb, the communications director for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told FoxNews.com. She cited CDC data which show that, since data has been kept in 2001, the rate of people being assaulted and shot during the assault has risen 25 percent.
In other words, the data since 2001 tell a slightly more complex story: Fewer people are being attacked with guns, but slightly more people are being shot with guns – yet at the same time, fewer people are being killed with guns.
“A number of factors are believed to have contributed to this, but mostly, improved medical care is helping to save more lives,” Soto Lamb said. “The latest studies should not be taken as proof that this country does not have a gun violence epidemic. We do.”
Still, the biggest trend over the last 20 years is the reduction in gun-related attacks and killings, and Gottlieb blames the media for ignoring that story.
“The Second Amendment Foundation has been tracking the data year-in and year-out, and each year, we put out a news release about how gun crime is down. But the media just doesn’t want to hear it if it doesn’t further their anti-gun agenda,” Gottlieb said.
The idea that public perceptions don't match up with the numbers is hardly surprising, said Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University who researches public opinion.
“The public perceives rising crime in general… [so] I don't think anti-gun bias is a good explanation,” Caplan told FoxNews.com.
Gallup polls show that Americans overestimate crime in general. In 15 out of 16 Gallup polls conducted in the past 20 years, Americans incorrectly said that crime had risen compared to the previous year.
While gun crime fell dramatically over the last 20 years, crimes committed without guns fell just as fast.
Gottlieb had an explanation for that.
“All crime has basically been going down. And that’s because more people have firearms to protect themselves,” he said.
While firearm ownership rates have been relatively flat according to survey data, many more people now have licenses to carry guns on their person. The number of states with laws that give people a right to carry handguns outside of the home – known as “shall-issue concealed-carry laws” -- has increased dramatically over the last 20 years, going from 16 states in 1993 to 43 now.
Estimates show that guns are used in self-defense between 100,000 and 2 million times each year. Overlooking that, Gottlieb said, is the media’s biggest error.
“You never hear about defensive gun uses. Every time there’s a tragedy, there’s a call for gun control. But every time a gun is used in self defense – usually it doesn’t make the news, and you never hear a call for relaxing the gun laws so more people can defend themselves.”
Contact the author at email@example.com or on twitter at @maximlott