Gun Violence Fact Check: the New Normal is Lower than the Old Normal

On Bill Moyers’ website, Cliff Schecter asks readers to “Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence.” This headline implicitly asserts that the level of gun violence being currently experienced is new — a “new normal.” The first paragraph of Schecter’s article implies that gun violence is not at a “new” low, but rather a “new” high:

“Some days it can seem like we should just give up. You’re just processing one senseless mass shooting in Las Vegas when you find out there has been a mass killing in Florida. But there’s no time to think about that because your television is saying that there’s a shooter on the loose in North Hollywood, and there has been another high school shooting in Oregon. It can lead to despair.”

Notice that Schechter’s claim about a rise in gun deaths to an unacceptable “new normal” is based in the way things “seem” to citizens based on reports in the news media. But perceived changes in reports in the news are not the same as observed changes in the event itself. To uncover the latter, let’s consult historical data from the FBI’s compilation of police reports in the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Crime in the United States publication. Although police reports are not a perfect measure of actual levels of crime, homicide is perhaps the one crime most transparent to police reports and is most likely to gather data regarding the mode of death. The Crime in the United States publication brings us close as possible to charting the actual trend in the number and type of homicides in the United States. Counts of murders involving firearms from 1992 to 2012 (the last year for which data is available) are presented below:

Number of Murder Victims Killed by Firearms.  Source: FBI, Crimes in the United States reports

According to these records of police reports, there has been a decline rather than an increase in murder by gun in the United States. That decline in numbers is striking considering that during the same period the U.S. population rose. On January 1, 1992 the United States population was 254,782,555. On December 31, 2012 the United States population was 315,073,604. If the rate of gun deaths per person remained absolutely the same from 1992 to 2012, we would have seen an increase in the number of gun deaths of 23.7% simply because in 2012 there were 23.7% more people. Instead, the UCR figures show a drop of 42.8%, from 15489 murders by firearm in 1992 to 8855 murders by firearm in 2012.

It could be reasonable to argue that 8855 gun-related killings in the United States are still too many, and it could be reasonable to discuss what might be done to reduce the number of gun deaths even more. On the basis of nationally-collected data, however, it is not reasonable to assert that levels of gun violence are on the rise to some unacceptably high “new normal.”

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