The nation’s total violent crime rate hit an all-time high in 1991. Thereafter, it declined 18 of the next 20 years, 49 percent overall, to a 41-year low in 2011. That included a 52 percent decrease in the nation’s murder rate, to a 48-year low, nearly the lowest point in U.S. history. The FBI has preliminarily reported that in the first half of 2012, the murder rate dropped another 2.7 percent.1
Concurrently, gun ownership2 and the number of privately owned guns rose to all-time highs, the number of privately owned firearms in the U.S. rising by over 120 million, including about 55 million handguns, about 80 percent of which were semi-automatic.3 The 120 million new firearms included over 3.5 million AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and tens of millions of other firearms that gun control supporters call “assault weapons,”4 along with countless tens of millions of ammunition magazines that hold 11 or more rounds, which gun control supporters think are too “large.”5 In the three months following President Barack Obama’s reelection and his announcement that gun control would be a “central issue” of his final term of office,6 the number of firearm-related background checks conducted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System rose 53 percent, as compared to the same November-January period a year earlier.7
The trends stand in stark contrast to what gun control supporters have predicted over the years. Handguns are, of course, the type of firearm that gun control have always most wanted to be banned.8 In the 1970s, the Brady Campaign (then called National Council to Control Handguns) predicted: “There are now 40 million handguns owned by private individuals in the United States—about one gun for every American family. At the present rate of proliferation, the number could build to 100 million by the year 2000 (which isn’t as far off as you think). The consequences can be terrible to imagine—unless something is done.”9
In 1979, when Brady Campaign was known as Handgun Control, Inc., it updated its prediction, saying, “Right now over 50 million HANDGUNS flood the houses and streets of our nation. . . . HANDGUN production and sales are out of control. . . . If we continue at this pace, we will have equipped ourselves with more than 100 million HANDGUNS by the turn of the century. One hundred million HANDGUNS. Will we be safer then?”10 As the crime trends discussed indicate, the answer to the group’s question appears to be “yes.”
In the late 1980s, realizing they had failed to get handguns banned, gun control supporters switched their gun-banning energies to semi-automatic rifles and other firearms they call “assault weapons,” using much the same rhetoric against those firearms as they had used previously against handguns.11
Less Gun Control: Over the last quarter-century, many federal, state and local gun control laws have been eliminated or made less restrictive. The federal “assault weapon” ban, upon which gun control supporters claimed public safety hinged, expired in 2004 and the murder rate has since dropped 10 percent. The federal handgun waiting period, for years the centerpiece of gun control supporters’ agenda, expired in 1998, in favor of the NRA-supported national Instant Check. Accordingly, some states have eliminated obsolete waiting periods and purchase permit requirements. There are now 41 Right-to-Carry states, an all-time high, up from 10 in 1987. All states have hunter protection laws, 48 have range protection laws, 48 prohibit local gun laws more restrictive than state law, 44 protect the right to arms in their constitutions, 33 have “castle doctrine” laws protecting the right to use guns in self-defense, and Congress and 33 states prohibit frivolous lawsuits against the firearm industry. Studies for Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Library of Congress, the National Institutes of Justice, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found no evidence that gun control reduces crime.12 The FBI doesn’t list gun control as one of the many factors that determine the type and level of crime from place to place.13
1. For years 1991-2010, see the FBI Uniform Crime Reports Section Data Tool. For 2011 and the first half of 2012, see FBI, Crime in the United States 2011 and preliminary 2012 reports, available on the FBI’s Crime Statistics webpage. Note that the FBI reported a 1.7 percent decrease in the number of murders in the first half of 2012, as compared to the same period on 2011, implying a 2.7 percent increase in the murder per capita rate, given the approximately one percent increase in the population in the intervening year. For information on earlier murder rates, see Claude Fischer, “A crime puzzle,” The Public Intellectual, May 2, 2011.
2. Along with a rise n the U.S. population of roughly one percent annually, 47 percent of households reported gun ownership in 2011, the highest since 1993, Gallup, “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in U.S. is Highest Since 1993.
3. See BATFE, “Firearms Commerce in the United States: Annual Statistical Update 2012. One can estimate the number of manufactured and imported guns beyond 2010 by using the numbers of firearm-related background checks conducted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), discussed above.
4. On January 24, 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced Senate Bill 150, proposing to ban all detachable-magazine semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic shotguns, based upon their having a “characteristic that can function as a grip.”
5. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) estimates that there were 50 million such magazines imported while the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban was imposed, between 1994-2004. (Schumer press release, “Schumer Moves to Renew Federal Ban on Assault Weapons,” May 8, 2003.)
6. Michael D. Shear, “Obama Vows Fast Action ion New Push for Gun Control,” New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012
8. In 1975, the National Council to Control Handguns (renamed Handgun Control, Inc., or HCI, in 1979 and now called the Brady Campaign) called for “a ban on the manufacture, sale, and importation of all handguns and handgun ammunition.” (Nelson T. “Pete” Shields, People Weekly, Oct. 20, 1975.) The group said “Our battle is against handguns,” which it called “a national plague.” (“There is now a nationwide, full-time, professional organization to battle the gun lobby” pamphlet, circa 1975.) In 1976, the group’s chairman, Nelson T. “Pete” Shields, said, “The first problem is to slow down the increasing number of handguns being produced and sold in this country. The second problem is to get handguns registered. And the final problem is to make the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition—except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors—totally illegal.” (Richard Harris, “A Reporter At Large: Handguns,” The New Yorker, July 26, 1976.) The group called handguns “a national plague” and said “our battle is against handguns.” (National Council to Control Handguns, “There is now a nationwide, full-time, professional organization to battle the gun lobby” pamphlet, circa 1975.) A few years later, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns said “the primary function of a handgun is to kill a human being. . . . It is the concealable handgun that threatens and intimidates the citizens of this country.” (Pamphlet, “20 Questions and Answers,” circa 1981.) Then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (later, U.S. Senate sponsor of the federal “assault weapon” ban of 1994-2004), said she was “deeply committed” to her proposal to ban the private possession of handguns in the city, even though she had carried a handgun for protection. (Ivan Sharpe, “People With Guns,” San Francisco Examiner, March 28, 1982.) In 1982, Handgun Control filed a brief in Quilici v. Morton Grove, in support of the Illinois town’s handgun ban. In 2008, Brady Campaign filed a brief to the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, in support of Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban.
9. NCCH, “There is now a nationwide, full-time, professional organization to battle the gun lobby!” pamphlet, no date, but circa 1975.
10. HCI pamphlet, “By this time tomorrow, 24 Americans will be murdered,” circa 1979 or 1980.
11. See www.GunBanFacts.com, “history” section.
12. Jeffrey A. Roth, Christopher S. Koper, “Impact Evaluation of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, Urban Institute, March 13, 1997; Reedy and Koper, “Impact of handgun types of gun assault outcomes: a comparison of gun assaults involving semiautomatic pistols and revolvers,” Injury Prevention, Sept. 2003; Christopher S. Koper, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003,” Report to the National Institute of Justice, June 2004; Wm. J. Krouse, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, “Semiautomatic Assault Weapons Ban,” 12/16/04; Library of Congress, “Firearms Regulations in Various Foreign Countries,” 5/98, LL98-3, 97-2010; Task Force on Community Preventive Service, “First Reports Evaluating the Effectiveness of Strategies for Preventing Violence: Firearms Laws,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 10/03/03; Nat’l. Research Council, “Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review,” Nat’l. Academies Press, 2005.
13. FBI, “Crime in the United States 2011,” Variables Affecting Crime.