A number of opinion writers have taken the occasion of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado to express disgust with the fact that the American public shows little inclination towards increased gun control. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say they “feel that laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict” dropped from 78% to 44% during the period from 1990 to 2010.
Some of the more hyperbolic has claimed this is because the US is seized by a “death cult” or that it “worships violence”, but I think the actual reason is quite rational.
If we look at the percentage of people supporting stricter gun control in relation to the percentage of people who say they own guns (also from Gallup) and the US homicide rate, we see that the homicide rate dropped by 49% from 1990 to 2010 while gun ownership rates have remained fairly flat.
Since people readily perceive that gun ownership remains common, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly since the height of the ’80s and ’90s crime wave, people seem to implicitly believe that restricting gun ownership is not necessary in order to deal with crime.
We can get a somewhat longer term view of this if we look at an older Gallup question which is available in the same study, the percentage of Americans who say they support a ban on civilian handgun ownership. The question has been asked somewhat sporadically by Gallup, so we have only a few data points from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but the pattern is still very interesting.
Gallup first asked the question in 1959 when the murder rate had just gone up from 4.1 in 1955 to 4.9 in 1959. Support for a ban was quite high as 60%. Support for a ban dropped rapidly while crime increased. In 1979 31% of Americans supported banning handguns and the murder rate was 9.8. Support for a handgun ban then rebounded, reaching a recent high of 43% of American in 1991, which was also one of the worst years for violent crime with a murder rate of 9.8. However, violent crime then fell sharply and has continued a gradual decline, and support for banning hand guns has declined along with it with only 29% of Americans supporting such a ban in 2010.
This suggests to me that Americans actually have a pretty reasonable approach to the question. Despite the occasional headline grabbing catastrophe, the current murder rate is down at the same level as the 1950s, despite the availability of Glock handguns and “assault rifles”.