How Do We Know That Crime Is Going Up or Down?

Violent crime rates 1973-2005

Violent crime rates 1973-2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every time the gun control crowd makes a peep, the NRA and its juggernaut PR operation swings into high gear to remind  us that Americans are safer because we can own guns.  And they point to the fact that over the last twenty years, while the number of guns in private hands has doubled, the rate of violent crime has dropped by half.  Now let’s forget the fact that 95% of the decline in violent crime took place fifteen years ago and that over the last few years the violent crime rate has been slowly inching up.  If for nothing other than coincidence, you still can’t argue with the notion that more guns does seem to equal less crime.

But a funny thing happened the last time this debate broke out, namely, that despite the evidence of a decrease in violent crime, a majority of Americans feel that they are living in a more dangerous place.  This was the finding of public opinion polls published both by Gallop and Pew, the former finding that more than two-thirds of their respondents felt crime was worse, the latter pegging the number at 55 percent.  Given these findings, should it surprise that so many Americans are heeding the NRA’s call and rushing down to their local ;police stations to apply for permits to carry a gun?  Every day we read another story about how police agencies are unable to keep up with the flood of applicants for concealed-carry permits while most gun manufacturers report that they are at least six months behind in  catching up with the demand for small, concealable guns.

But if you want to blame the NRA for ginning up public concern about crime and therefore the necessity to go out and buy a gun, you may be barking up the wrong tree.  Because it turns out the percentage of Americans who believe that crime has increased and are in favor of stricter gun laws outweighs the percentage who agree that crime has increased but are against stricter laws by a factor of two to one! And even though this is a Rasmussen poll, and everyone knows that Rasmussen screwed up 2012, a difference of 64% to 28% simply can’t be ascribed to the bias or agenda of the polling organization.

So where does this disconnect between perception and reality about crime come from on the part of people who don’t like guns?  You might find the following story interesting, if not instructive.  Last week a community discussion about gun violence took place in Jamaica Plain, MA, which is a middle-class, racially and ethnically mixed community bordering the Roxbury ghetto on one side and the very affluent community of Brookline on the other. The meeting was called by the area’s State Representative, Jeff Sanchez, who supports a new gun law proposed by Gov. Patrick.

Reading the report of this meeting, it’s clear that the tone and the content of the meeting was decidedly anti-gun.  But what caught my eye was the comment by County Sheriff, Steve Tompkins, who noted that Massachusetts already had some of the toughest gun laws in the country but gun crimes were “spiraling” upwards.  Not moving slightly upwards, not increasing substantially, spiraling upwards. His word, not mine.

There’s only one problem with this ‘spiral.’  It doesn’t exist.  In 2011 Massachusetts recorded 28, 232 violent crimes, including 184 murders, 19,626 assaults and 6,768 robberies.  For 2012, violent crime totalled 26.953, murders were 121,  assaults were 18,638 and robberies were 6,552.  In fact the data clearly shows that there has been a crime spiral in Massachusetts – downward; more than a 5% decline in the overall numbers in one year.  The drop in murders (roughly 30%) is particularly significant because murders are mostly committed with guns.

I don’t blame the folks who attended this meeting for thinking that crime is increasing when their own law enforcement officials tell them that this is the case, even when the same officials send data to the FBI that shows the opposite to be true.  But I have to wonder about the motivation of law enforcement officials who talk about the ‘spiraling’ of crime to the people whose taxes pay their salaries.  I hav to wonder…

 

 

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