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Crime, Guns, and Lead (February 2, 2013)

Posted in Crime

Gun regulation has crowded fiscal and economic difficulties out of the news, at least for a while, and has prompted a look at the data on murders and other crime in the USA and around the world. I started with FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics which show an incredible early 1990’s trend reversal. The second chart shows homicide only because it is so small in the total picture that it hardly shows in the first chart. Click on the charts to read the fine print.



(Note that these numbers exclude suicides, accidental shootings, and justifiable homicides.)

It would be interesting if the claim could be made that a dramatic increase in gun regulation and decrease in gun ownership in the early nineties resulted in the decreased homicide and other crime rates, but, while dependable data on the history of gun ownership does not seem to be readily available, nobody is arguing that there was a significant shift in the 1990’s. It seems likely that the percent of homes with guns is decreasing slowly due to urbanization and decreasing popularity of hunting, but the number of guns owned and the number of concealed carry permits apparently continue to increase. Some data here.

There are a number of theories about the early nineties trend reversal:

  • High mid-century levels of tetraethyl lead in gasoline resulted, with a twenty year or so time delay, in significant behavioral problems, including criminal activity, which decreased once that component began disappearing from the atmosphere. Read more about it here.
  • Increasing rates of abortion after Row vs. Wade resulted in fewer unwanted babies being poorly raised and ending up as criminals. Read more about it here.
  • A crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980’s drove crime rates up, and rates declined after more people decided to just mellow out on marijuana. Mentioned here.
  • At least one person argues that violent video games and pornography got so good, as digital technologies and the internet expanded, that non-productive people developed the habit of getting their thrills at home in front of a computer screen instead of going out and committing crimes. Mentioned here.
  • Major cities, led by New York City and Boston, focused on crime reduction strategies such as “The Broken Windows Strategy” and “Operation Ceasefire”   and thereby significantly reduced crime nationwide.
  • Increasing gun ownership has made criminals think twice about violent crimes since it has become more uncertain who might be shot during the process. Discussed here.
  • Prison population has expanded rapidly with the result that fewer criminals are on the streets. Discussed here.

The bottom line is that we don’t know the reasons but can just give thanks that there are far fewer victims that there would have been if the trends through the 1970’s and 1980’s had continued. While we cannot expect any significant shifts in these trends due to additional gun regulations currently under consideration, the sooner we take whatever actions are to be taken, get through the easily understandable and well-justified emotional turmoil over the senseless but extremely rare killing of innocent children by a mentally ill person, and get congress focused on the critical fiscal and economic problems the nation faces, the better off we will be. Additional data are presented below for your consideration.