Gun crime
A chart showing gun violence rates and their decline. Pew Research

A new study shows that U.S. gun violence rates have dropped by half in the 20 years since 1993’s all-time high for gun homicides. But the American public seems largely unaware of these falling gun homicide rates.

According to a new in-depth study by Pew Research, Americans responded to two separate polls by overwhelmingly stating that gun violence has increased since 1993. When asked about trends in gun violence, 56 percent of Americans responded that violence had gone up, 26 percent said that it had stayed the same, and only 12 percent stated, correctly, that gun violence had gone down.

Additionally, men (especially minority men) are the most likely to say that long-term gun violence has gone up. Young adults are also much more likely to say that gun violence has risen. Women and older adults were more likely to say that gun violence has declined or stayed the same.

In fact, contrary to popular perception, gun violence has been on the decline in America for two decades. In nearly every category, gun violence peaked in 1993 and has fallen significantly ever since. Pew Research measured rates of homicides by firearm, non-fatal firearm crime, and all non-fatal violent crime and found that in every case, gun violence has drastically decreased since its 1993 peak.

“Looking back 50 years, the U.S. gun homicide rate began rising in the 1960s, surged in the 1970s, and hit peaks in 1980 and the early 1990s,” the study states. “The number of homicides peaked in the early 1990s. The plunge in homicides after that meant that firearm homicide rates in the late 2000s were equal to those not seen since the early 1960s.”

In the case of firearm homicide deaths, they have dropped from 7 deaths per 100,000 people in 1993 to 3.6 per 100,000, a drop of 49 percent. Non-fatal firearm crime dropped even more significantly, from 725.3 victimizations per 100,000 to only 181.5 victimizations per 100,000. That’s a substantial drop by any standard.

Though gun deaths dropped sharply in the 1990s, violence has been slightly on the rise in the last five years.

“Nearly all the decline in the firearm homicide rate took place in the 1990s; the downward trend stopped in 2001 and resumed slowly in 2007,” the study states.

Why has gun violence fallen so drastically in the past few decades? Pew Research cites a couple of reasons. Gun violence reached its peak in 1993 due in large part to crack cocaine’s influence on the drug market. As crack became a less popular drug and the economy flourished and allowed more citizens in high-crime areas to obtain legitimate jobs, gun violence lessened significantly.

Pew points to other factors as well. In addition to higher rates of incarceration and stricter laws limiting at-risk youth from owning illegal firearms, Pew Research also cited the possibility of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision preventing gun deaths 20 years later. According to this theory, many youths who would otherwise have grown up in a cycle of poverty and violence were instead aborted, leading to less at-risk youth and young adults on the street. This is simply one possibility among many, however.

Another interesting note in the story is that while gun violence rates have dropped, overall gun ownership rates have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s. Roughly 40 percent of Americans report that at least one person in their household has owned a gun.