LOS ANGELES — Gun crime has plunged in the United States since its peak in the middle of the 1990s, including gun killings, assaults, robberies and other crimes, two new studies of government data show.
Yet few Americans are aware of the dramatic drop, and more than half believe gun crime has risen, according to a newly released survey by the Pew Research Center.
In less than two decades, the gun murder rate has been nearly cut in half. Other gun crimes fell even more sharply, paralleling a broader drop in violent crimes committed with or without guns. Violent crime dropped steeply during the 1990s and has fallen less dramatically since 2000.
The bureau also looked into non-fatal violent crimes. Few victims of such crimes — less than 1 percent — reported using a firearm to defend themselves.
Despite the drop in gun crime, only 12 percent of Americans surveyed said gun crime had declined compared with two decades ago, according to Pew, which surveyed more than 900 adults this spring. Twenty-six percent said it had stayed the same, and 56 percent thought it had increased.
It’s unclear whether media coverage is driving the misconception that such violence is up. The mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., were among the news stories most closely watched by Americans last year, Pew found. Crime has also been a growing focus for national newscasts and morning network shows in the past five years but has become less common on local television news.
“It’s hard to know what’s going on there,” said D’Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center. Women, people of color and the elderly were more likely to believe that gun crime was up than men, younger adults or white people. The center plans to examine crime issues more closely later this year.
Though violence has dropped, the United States still has a higher murder rate than most other developed countries, though not the highest in the world, the Pew study noted. A Swiss research group, the Small Arms Survey, says that the U.S. has more guns per capita than any other country.
Experts debate why overall crime has fallen, attributing the drop to all manner of causes, such as the withering of the crack cocaine market and surging incarceration rates.
Some researchers have even linked dropping crime to reduced lead in gasoline, pointing out that lead can cause increased aggression and impulsive behavior in exposed children.
The victims of gun killings are overwhelmingly male and disproportionately black, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Compared with other parts of the country, the South had the highest rates of gun violence, including both murders and other violent gun crimes.