David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Fear in America, 2016

In this election year, Americans have been hearing a lot of bad stuff about their country.  To hear some people tell it, crime is almost out of control.  Mass shootings have been in the news quite a bit, and as always, terrorist attacks get lots of news coverage.  I won’t dwell on these because they are virtually irrelevant, statistically, to personal safety risk.  What about more mundane crimes, including violent crimes?


In the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, national violent crime rates rose, after a brief dip in the early 1980’s, from about 550 per 100,000 to a high of about 750 per 100,000 in 1992.  It is widely believed, by those who have studied the issue, that much of this was related to the crack cocaine epidemic that swept major American cities at this time.  After 1992, the rate dropped sharply, year by year, and by 2000 it was down to early 1980’s level.  It has continued to drop and today is lower than it has been in decades.


Property crime also reach a peak in the early 1990’s, and has declined since.  Like violent crime, it is now at its lowest level in decades.  Some point to incarceration rates as an explanation, which increased steadily through the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The problem with this is that it seemed to have no effect at all on crime for almost 10 years.  Incarceration rates more than doubled from 1983 to 1992, yet violent crime rose steadily during this time.  As quickly as it peaked in 1992, the violent crime rate dropped.  The incarceration rate leveled off in 2000, yet crime rates continued to drop, and are now dramatically lower than they were at that time.


Some believe that the aging American population is a factor.  A large percentage of crimes are committed by the young.  There are simply fewer young Americans now, as a percentage of the population.  There are other theories, too.  Some have even suggested that lead levels in the 1980’s and 1990’s were responsible for high crime rates.


What is most curious, though, is that even as crime rates have dropped, Americans have increasingly armed themselves for self-defense.  Although getting numbers on gun purchases is a bit tricky, one measure of purchases is the number of firearm background checks each year.  This number actually declined slightly from 1999 to 2003.  But since then, it has increased steadily and dramatically.  Gun advocates naturally like to point to the opposite trends of gun purchases and crime rates as evidence that more guns make us safer.  The problem is that the decline in crime has been steady for 25 years, while the spike in gun purchases goes back only about 13 years.


But the larger problem is that increases in gun purchases are presumably a RESPONSE to crime.  And crime has been on a steady downward trend for 25 years.  How do we explain this discrepancy?  It’s really not hard.  Gallup has been surveying Americans’ beliefs about crime for decades.  Almost every single year, regardless of crime statistics, a majority of Americans say that crime is on the increase.  In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, they were correct – crime was increasing.  But since 2001, crime rates have dropped steadily, while large majorities of Americans have claimed in surveys that the opposite is happening.


Women are consistently more likely than men to say that crime is increasing.  But when we break things down by politics, more dramatic patterns appear.  In the 2015 Gallup poll, fully 80% of Americans who described themselves as conservative responded that crime was on the increase.  Only 57% of those who considered themselves liberal thought so.  One might think that city dwellers would tend to think that crime is on the increase, but the opposite is true.  69% of city people responded that crime was on the increase, while 75% of rural people said so.  And what is perhaps most interesting of all is that people who had actually been victims of crime were no more likely to say that crime was on the increase than those who weren’t!

What is even more interesting is that since Barack Obama took office, American Republicans respond that crime is increasing at much higher rates than Democrats.  When his predecessor George Bush was in office, the opposite was true.  Democrats said that crime was increasing at higher rates than Republicans.  In both cases, they were wrong.  Crime rates declined steadily during the entire period.


It is quite apparent that people’s beliefs and attitudes about crime are largely shaped by their political leanings and their feelings about the state of the country generally, largely shaped by the media.  When the economy is doing relatively poorly, more people tend to say that crime is increasing, whether it is or not.  During the economic boom of the 1990’s, the percentage of Americans who said crime was increasing steadily dropped.  But starting in 2001, it began to climb again, and has stayed high ever since.  Gun purchases have increased dramatically over the last 13 years, particularly the last 8 years.


Even though there are a lot of guns floating around, one interesting thing about this is that if you look at gun ownership by household, it hasn’t changed much over the years.  It’s actually declined slightly.  Recently a study was published showing that more than half of all of the guns in the U.S. are owned by only 3% of American adults.  Most Americans don’t own a gun.  Even among those that do, most own only a small number.  A tiny minority own large numbers – 10, 20, even 100 or more.


The problem is that the more guns there are, the more guns can be stolen, and it is stolen guns that are mostly used in violent crimes.  Sure enough, the number of stolen guns has risen steadily over the last 12 years, about a 40% increase since 2004.  As I said before, this doesn’t mean gun crimes are increasing – they’re not, they’re declining.  But even as they are declining, our society is indirectly making more and more guns available to those who would use them to commit crimes.


Fear can be a healthy thing, of course, if it’s based on the realities of risk.  Or fear can be a very unhealthy thing, controlling you and in some cases actually increasing your risks.  As always, critical thinking is a powerful tool to avoid hucksters and manipulators.  What does the evidence say?  Is it solid evidence, built on lots of data collected scientifically?  Or is it just anecdotal accounts?  Or worse yet, is it just a loud mouth who gets lots of air time?  As always, we must be skeptical of media accounts, and mindful of our tendency to be our own worst enemy, when it comes to biases and logical fallacies.  And the irony is that the things that we need to be most wary of may be the sources of our fear – the media, who exploit it to increase ratings, the commercial enterprises, who want to sell us weapons and security systems, and above all, the politicians, who are happy to exploit any emotion they can to achieve power.






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