With violent crime soaring over the last two years, Americans want a solution. Over and over, President Joe Biden and gun control advocates frame violent crime as a gun problem. Relying on public health researchers, articles such as this one in the Atlantic and in local news stories this week point to increasing gun sales as the cause. But reported gun crimes fell in 2020, so the writers ignore the obvious explanation for rising crime, that law enforcement isn’t being allowed to do its job.
Gun sales increased dramatically in 2020 before receding some in 2021. Background checks on gun sales soared from 12.4 million in 2019 to 20.3 million in 2020 and declining back to 17.6 million in 2021. Meanwhile, murder and aggravated assaults rose in 2020. In 2020, they increased double-digit rates (29% for murder and 12% for aggravated assaults).
To many, the connection seems obvious. Gun sales increased, and murder and aggravated assaults rose, though robberies fell.
But what the media ignores is that the number of violent gun crimes dropped dramatically in 2020. Last October, the US Department of Justice released a study showing victims reported 212,470 gun crimes to police in 2020, a drop of 27% from the 290,790 in 2019. The share of violent crimes committed with guns also fell – by over 30%.
Of course, victims don’t report all crimes to the police. To get a handle on that, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey interviews about 100,000 Americans each year. That survey also finds that the estimated number of gun crimes also fell by 27%, from 481,950 to 350,460 and that the share of violent crimes involving guns was only 7.7%.
In 2020, there was a statistically insignificant few percentage point rise in the share of murder committed with guns, but the share of guns used in robberies and aggravated assaults has dropped dramatically.
All this is consistent with academic research by myself and others showing that when civilians carry guns criminals are less likely to carry them. If a criminal pulls out a gun against an armed victim, he is more likely to be shot.
Gun ownership didn’t fuel the increase in crime over the last couple of years. Rather, people worried about violent crime and decided to arm themselves for self-protection.
It’s not hard to find explanations for the increased violence. Many urban areas saw more than half of prison inmates released because of the pandemic, and the releases still continue. Nationwide, there are over 340,000 fewer inmates in jails and prisons in 2021 than in 2019. In many places, police budgets were cut and officers ordered to stand down. New York City cut its police budget by $1 billion.
Prosecutors in many major urban areas have refused to prosecute violent criminals. In October, two rival drug gangs got into a gunfight in Chicago during broad daylight. The fight, caught on video, left one shooter dead and two others wounded. Cook County District Attorney Kim Foxx declined to prosecute any of the gang members, initially explaining they were “mutual combatants.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, hardly a right-winger, lashed out at Foxx: “If the bad guys that are out there that are picking up guns and shooting without any regard for the sanctity of life do not believe that there’s accountability for them, the brazenness will not end. It will escalate, it will continue, and our communities will not be safe.”
Throw in bail reform and some places cutting criminal penalties, and you have a real mess. In Harris County, Texas, criminals released since 2018 on little or no bail (some of them previously charged with murder) have murdered 156 people. In Nevada, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak championed a measure gutting the state’s three-strikes law, where criminals convicted of their third felony faced additional prison time. He replaced it with a rule allowing for six or seven felonies before the perpetrator faces additional punishment.
Lightfoot is right. If you want to reduce crime, criminals must be afraid of being caught and punished.
It isn’t rocket science understanding why crime is increasing, and it isn’t the fault of gun owners. Many parts of the country are in dire need of basic law enforcement. But, given how poorly public health researchers have done with their recommendations over the last couple of years, you would hope people would be skeptical of their advice on guns.
*Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and most recently the author of “Gun Control Myths.” Up until last year, Lott worked in the US Department of Justice as Senior Advisor for Research and Statistics.
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