Friday, August 17, 2012

Reason #252: Perspective

I've touched on crime and punishment a number of times before in this blog, and one thing I've always endeavored to keep in the picture--but rarely addressed specifically--is context.

Particularly over the last month, it's been very easy to lose all hope for American society in the face of the seemingly endless series of "mass" killings in places like Arizona, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Those that don't tune out entirely often respond by retreating ever more tightly into their chosen corner--too many guns (or too few), too much media coverage, too few police (or too many), etc. There are elements of truth in most, if not all, people's reactions; certainly there are issues with these events' depictions in the news, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The totality of the truth, though, is something almost no one ever thinks to look at, and it's shown in stark relief in the chart above--there is far less violence in America today than there has been over the last few decades. And for all the debate about gun control, actual gun ownership has gone down at least as sharply (possibly moreso in some cases) in the same amount of time:

While gun ownership has been going down more or less evenly, what's interesting is that violent crime was indeed going up for a while there. The best theory I've seen on that (certainly the most ironic) actually blames it on the Baby Boomers--"put a lot more 15-to-25-year-old males into a society and you will get an upsurge of violence", according to Berkeley sociology professor Claude Fischer. He goes on to mention the after-effects of the civil rights movement and the expanding drug trade, but even taking all that into account, things have been getting steadily better for at least the last twenty years or so.

What's even more interesting is this graph (which Professor Fischer admits is largely educated guesses and estimations) of the homicide rate going all the way back to America's inception. According to those numbers, even the 80s/90s peak of twentieth-century violence was lower than at any time during the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. There are big bumps during wartime, naturally (though much less so for the World Wars than the Civil or Revolutionary Wars), but I think it's profoundly important that the more you zoom out, the more clearly a steady decline can be seen. No matter how you look at it, Americans are far safer now than at almost any time in our history.

So despite having less to be scared of, why are we so scared? I don't think I need to convince anyone that twenty-four-hour news is the culprit here, but what I can do is give some numbers for that, as well. According to Gallup, the amount of people who believe there is more crime in the US compared to a year earlier peaked at eighty-nine percent in...wait for it...1991. Around the same time that actual crime peaked--despite no cable news whatsoever. No Fox News, no Nancy Grace, not even America's Most Wanted. And would you believe that that number, too, has gone down drastically since then? 9/11 threw a serious wrench in the works ten years ago, but immediately prior to that, even with cable news, the amount of people who perceived crime as increasing was all the way down to forty-one percent! It's been hovering in the sixties and low seventies since then, but I'd wager it'll start trending downward again sooner or later--and even if not, it's already low from a historical standpoint.

All this isn't to lessen the real tragedies, of course, and I'm sure demographics are small comfort to the families of shooting victims, but one last thing I'll point out is that support for the death penalty is at its lowest in almost forty years--sixty-one percent compared to a peak of eighty percent about twenty years ago. So even with all the hype and hoopla about crime and homicide and gangs and drugs and domestic terror, we somehow have less interest in executing people. Even if you support the death penalty as an option, knowing we need it less has to be a win, right?

Further Reading

The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States

Gun Control Polls Show Longterm Decline In Support, Despite Columbine Bump

A crime puzzle: Violent crime declines in America

In U.S., Support for Death Penalty Falls to 39-Year Low

Wikipedia - Crime in the United States

Americans Still Perceive Crime as on the Rise

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