We are at a low valley of homicide rates we haven’t experienced since the 1950s. If you’re Gen X or younger right now is the safest it’s been from homicide your entire life. But that’s not at all what people’s perceptions of it are like, because they’re all plugged into their phones and their phones are lying to them.
The Gun Homicide Epidemic Isn’t
Or, “How misrepresenting reality doesn’t engender cross-cultural cooperation.”
In my first story on Medium, we discuss some of the ways in which left of center media sources warp statistics to support the “we have a gun problem” and the “more guns = more homicide” narratives, largely by conflating suicide and homicide into one all-encompassing number, while not making that conflation clear. In the second story, we deliberate on the constituent elements of this “gun deaths” number, which is actually dominated by male suicides, and we discuss easily implementable ameliorations to that very real problem. Go read those articles first if you have the time. Here, we’re going to peel apart the gun homicide numbers as best as we can, to examine those.
The Case for Homicide Prevention Policy
While the case for suicide prevention is crystal clear, the case for structural policy changes to address homicide is, quite honestly, less clear. We have always been a violent country, and our homicide rates are currently tied with historic lows, not highs. You’d never know that from watching the media, which makes its money by peddling fear and anxiety, but here’s a snapshot of the last 100 years:
Before we get into looking at this graph, I want to point out something. I set the Y intercept at zero, even though I only have data points down to around 4 homicides per 100,000. It wastes white space on the graph, but showing the origin prevents you from being misled about the data. That trick — moving the origin around to confuse the reader about the data — is tremendously popular with modern media outlets, particularly cable news. Fox News gets rightfully trashed for this routinely, but CNN and other sources do it too. Watch closely for it, and when you see it, be especially critical of any commentary that accompanies the doctored graph. People who doctor graphs are usually trying to sell you something.
We have a slow climb of homicide up until 1920, when there’s a major spike and a high plateau right round the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, where government created a tremendous black market run by organized crime, and homicide rate stays above 8. The rate plummets precipitously after 1933. It’s stark, and obvious. We have a window around the 1950s and early 1960s of sub 4.5 rates, and then rates skyrocket again, this time with the ramp up of illicit drug use, and the associated prohibition wars thereof. They peak in 1980, they peak again in 1990, then fall precipitously in the 2000s. We get a small spike around 2006, and then they fall off.
A bit of honesty: I’m implying here that the homicide rates track with drug and alcohol prohibition without supporting the implication. I may try and support that implication with a future article, but there are other possible explanations, such as immigration, economics, or even lead in the water. The lead thing is actually pretty intriguing, although I remain skeptical for now. Tackling the vast array of multivariate homicide drivers is out of scope for this article.
But look closely. Our current homicide rate is historically low.
I’ll say that again, to be extremely clear. Our current homicide rate is historically low. The lowest in my lifetime, and odds are it’s the lowest in yours.
We are in the dead middle of a stretch of low homicide that’s only been experienced one other time in the last century in this country. If you are Generation X or younger, you have never been this safe from homicide in your entire life. The last time the homicide rate was this low was before the Beatles released “A Hard Day’s Night.” That’s an impressive achievement. But it’s characterized across the media, both left wing and right wing, as “an epidemic.” We might argue about how we’d like to define the word “epidemic,” but it is very clear that Merriam-Webster would flatly disagree with the characterization.
I have scoured all my literary sources, and I cannot find any definition of “epidemic,” anywhere, which conflates “tied for lowest rates in a century” with “epidemic.”
What even is an epidemic? It’s a rapid spread of infectious disease inside a short span, several weeks typically. What sort of rates constitute an epidemic? With meningitis, an epidemic would be 15 or more cases per 100,000 people within that two-week span. Our overall homicide rates are below 5 per 100,000 people per year, with gun-specific homicide even lower.
But that’s not fair, because it depends on the disease, and what the baseline rate of disease cases is. It all goes back to baselines. Well okay, let’s visualize that.
So pick your baseline. The average homicide rate in this country since 1910 is 6.86. Since the turn of this century it’s 5.26. This decade it’s 4.68. What’s the baseline? No matter what baseline you pick, there’s no epidemic. It’s fake. But much of the public certainly thinks there’s an epidemic. The Pew Research Center tracks that. Here’s a graph from a study they did in 2013:
Follow that link. Read that study. Like almost everything the Pew Research Center does, it’s nonpartisan, and very good. Come back here when you’re done. What in the heck is going on here? Crime in general, and homicides in particular, kept going down and are now fluctuating around a low valley, but the public perception is the exact opposite of the truth.
Why is the media making verifiably false claims about a homicide epidemic? It’s possible that they’re simply dumb, or careless, but I doubt it. It’s possible they’re doing it because epidemics scare people more than facts do, and scared people click more, which grows their revenues. Or it’s possible that falsely manufacturing a frenzy about an epidemic serves a different, more politically motivated purpose. I can’t be sure.
What we really have, is not an epidemic of homicides, but an epidemic of news stories about homicides.