In response to sharp increases in violent crime, President Biden stressed again last week that his administration is focused on “stemming the flow of firearms used to commit violent crimes.” But critics warn that this “guns first” approach ignores a basic fact – about 92% of violent crimes in America do not involve firearms.
Although firearms were used in about 74% of homicides in 2019, they comprise less than 9% of violent crimes in America.
The vast majority of violent offenses – including robberies, rapes and other sex crimes – almost always involve other weapons or no weapons at all.
Consider Chicago, which has become a national symbol of violent crime. While shootings have increased by about 11% this year, the number of murders has decreased slightly in 2021 – to 382 as of July 11 compared to 387 for the same time period last year. The dramatic increase Chicago is experiencing is in sex crimes — a 23% rise (1,068 as of July 11 compared with 868 during the same period in 2020).
In New York City, murders through the same period have dropped by 36.4% compared to last year. But robberies are up by 18%, rapes by 9%, and other sex crimes by 35% — all of which do not usually involve guns, sex crimes rarely so. This year murders make up 0.3% of felonies.
Even if gun crime were to rise dramatically, experts point out that it would still be a small fraction of overall violent crime.
The National Crime Victimization Survey, in the latest year available (2019), shows that there were 5,440,680 rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults and 16,425 murders. Firearms were used in 440,830 incidents for rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults (Table 25) and 10,258 murders. Adding those numbers up, 8.27% of violent crime incidents involved firearms. The percentage has stayed virtually the same for decades. For example, in 2000, it was 8.5%. In 2010, it was 9% (Table 4). Nor do most gun crimes end in murder: just 2% do.
The gulf between Democrats and Republicans on this is large. While Democrats are continuing to push for restrictions on police authority, Republican states are responding by giving police more power to do their job.
Nevertheless, Biden and other Democrats argue that lax gun control, which allows gun trafficking, is responsible for the increase in violent crime. The Biden administration’s focus on gun crimes is seen in the titles the White House put on Biden’s talks in April, June and last week: “Remarks by President Biden on Gun Violence Prevention,” “Remarks by President Biden and Attorney General Garland on Gun Crime Prevention Strategy,” and “Remarks by President Biden Discussing His Administration’s Comprehensive Strategy to Reduce Gun Crimes.”
In three speeches on crime, Biden mentioned “gun” or “firearm” 148 times. The term “weapon,” sometimes in connection with “assault weapon,” is used another 21 times. By contrast, when not directly discussing guns, he mentioned the words “crime,” “violence,” or “violent” about half as often – 89 times.
Unmentioned by the president as factors in the violent crime increase were last year’s widespread unrest over the George Floyd murder and the dislocations of the pandemic, including mass layoffs, youths kept out of schools and, notably, the early release of many convicts from infection-prone prisons. Against this backdrop, some scholars question the president’s focus on gun laws.
“What change in gun control laws in 2020 could possibly explain the increase in violent crime over the last year?” asked Carl Moody, an economist who specializes in studying crime at the College of William & Mary, in an interview with RealClearInvestigations. “Why did violent crime increase now, rather than two or three or four years ago?” he asked rhetorically.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans, such as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, point more generally to law enforcement. They argue that in many urban areas, more than half of prison inmates have been released on account of the pandemic and the releases are continuing. Bail reforms allow those accused of crime to remain on the streets. In some places, police have been ordered to stand down and their budgets cut. Prosecutors in many major urban areas have refused to prosecute violent criminals.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, released a statement late last year criticizing Los Angeles County’s then newly elected District Attorney George Gascón’s pledge (since fulfilled) to reduce criminal sentences and eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors. “As homicides, shooting victims and shots fired into occupied homes soar in Los Angeles,” the union wrote, “it’s disturbing that Gascón’s first act in office is to explore every avenue possible to release from jail those responsible for this bloodshed.”
Gascón’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In contrast with Republicans, Biden mentioned policing just four times in his three addresses. He did so once in connection with “red flag” gun laws, and three times boasted that the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year by Congress provided funds to hire “more police officers, more nurses, more counselors, more social workers.” However, the bill did not require that local governments spend any of the $350 billion they received on law enforcement.
Moody told RealClearInvestigations that the president’s emphasis on violent crime is “understandable if only because of how heavily concentrated murders are in the country.” Over 50% of the murders take place in just 2% of the counties (60 of the 3,140 counties, the 60 making up 27.5% of the population), and even within those counties most murders occur within 10-block areas. These are overwhelmingly gang-related murders. They are surely important, but don’t touch the lives of most Americans. Fifty-four percent of counties have no murders and another 15% have one.
Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and most recently the author of “Gun Control Myths.” Until January, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as senior adviser for research and statistics.