Conservative Media Misread Data To Declare Gun Violence Epidemic Over

Members of conservative media are trumpeting a government report indicating that gun homicides have fallen as proof that the need for stronger gun laws is unwarranted, while ignoring multiple factors that could account for the decrease. At the same time, firearm violence continues to be a problem as firearm homicides have fallen less than serious violent crime in general and the rate of gun violence in the United States still far outpaces other high-income nations.

In a May report, the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicated that the number of gun homicides fell 39 percent from 18,253 in 1993 to 11,101 in 2011. The Pew Research Center adjusted the figures to represent per capita rates in its report on the BJS data, finding that the incidence of firearm homicide has fallen 49 percent during that time period. 

Right-wing media have quickly seized upon this data to dismiss the need for stronger gun laws. According to the National Review Online's Charles C. W. Cooke, the BJS and Pew reports make “embarrassing reading for those who spend their time trying to make it appear as if America is in the middle of a gun-crime wave.” John Nolte of wrote, “This report not only proves the media wrong, it proves the NRA right.” Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that the reports represent “rotten data for anti-gun advocates trying to revive the Newtown, Conn., anti-gun legislative package.” Townhall's Katie Pavlich, who is also a contributor at Fox News, added, “Once again more guns do in fact equal less crime.”

But there is no logic to their arguments that data from the reports constitutes evidence against proposals to strengthen gun laws. Gun availability has been repeatedly linked to higher incidence of firearm homicides, and firearms remain the driving factor of homicides, with 70 percent of murders involving guns. According to an October 2012 report from BJS, the rate of serious violent crime declined 75 percent between 1993 and 2011, meaning that gun homicides are declining at a slower pace than overall crime.

Other factors may help explain the fall of gun crime since the early 1990s including reductions in lead levelsthe end of the crack epidemic, advances in medicine that allow more gunshot victims to survive their wounds, and a declining rate of gun ownership.

The implicit argument made by conservative media is that there is a causal link between reports of booming gun sales in recent years and the overall decline of gun homicide over the past 20 years. But this claim misunderstands how gun ownership has changed during this time period. According to the General Social Survey, household firearm ownership has fallen from 43 percent in the 1990s to 35 percent in the 2000s. Overall household ownership is down from 50 percent in the 1970s. As Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, explained to The New York Times, “There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof. But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.” 

Significantly, numerous studies have proven that gun availability is linked to gun violence. According to a review conducted by David Hemenway of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “Case-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies indicate that in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”

Conservatives who trumpet the BJS study are also ignoring that it indicated a decline in gun homicides, not that the problem of gun violence has been solved. In fact, the level of gun violence in the United States remains at epidemic levels. According to an analysis of data by PolitiFact, around 86,000 people are shot -- including both fatally or nonfatally -- each year due to crime or gun-related accidents. Approximately 18,000 more Americans die in gun suicides. Overall, firearm-related deaths are rising and set to outpace motor vehicle fatalities by 2015:

[Bloomberg, accessed 5/8/13]

Furthermore, the rate of serious gunshot wounds -- those that require hospitalization -- increased by nearly half between 2001 and 2011. The fact that more gunshot victims are surviving their wounds is hardly evidence for the conservative media's support of weaker gun laws. C. William Schwab, director of the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Wall Street Journal that medical advances explained why “we are saving many more people we didn't save even 10 years ago:”

[M]ore people in the U.S. are getting shot, but doctors have gotten better at patching them up. Improved medical care doesn't account for the entire decline in homicides but experts say it is a major factor.

Emergency-room physicians who treat victims of gunshot and knife attacks say more people survive because of the spread of hospital trauma centers--which specialize in treating severe injuries--the increased use of helicopters to ferry patients, better training of first-responders and lessons gleaned from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our experience is we are saving many more people we didn't save even 10 years ago,” said C. William Schwab, director of the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

[The Wall Street Journal, accessed 5/8/13]

Even with reductions in gun homicide, gun crime in the United States remains staggering in comparison to other developed nations.

The rate of gun homicide in the United States still far outpaces other high-income nations, which typically have strong gun laws. A 2003 study by Hemenway that compared the United States to other member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development found that the firearm homicide rate in the United States is 19.5 times the average of other high-income countries.* This disparity contributed to an overall homicide rate 6.9 times higher than other high-income nations.

* Note: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System, firearm homicide has fallen approximately 11 percent since Hemenway's 2003 study, which likely means that the disparity between the United States and other high-income nations has been reduced by a similar proportion.

UPDATE: Rush Limbaugh cited the BJS data to make the claim that gun violence is “a totally made-up crisis ... kind of like global warming” during the May 8 edition of his radio show: