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Gun violence: Surprise, it's not rising

January 19. 2013 11:23PM

During his Wednesday press conference announcing portions of his gun-control agenda, President Obama said we had to confront the "epidemic of gun violence in this country." That is a curious way of referring to a problem that has been in steady decline for years.

According to FBI data, the number of murders committed by firearms in this country is falling, not rising.

In 2011, the latest year for which full data are available, 8,583 people were killed by firearms. That is down from 10,225 in 2006. Murders committed with rifles, which includes "assault rifles" such as the Bushmaster AR-15, fell from 453 in 2007 to 323 in 2011.

Overall, the murder and violent crime rates in the United States have been declining for decades. Citing FBI data, New York University professor Patrick Egan wrote last July, "we are a less violent nation now than we've been in over forty years. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration."

This is hardly suggestive of an epidemic that screams for immediate government correction. What about mass shootings, though?

As widely reported after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., those are not on the rise. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox wrote in The Boston Globe after the Aurora, Colo., shootings last summer, "the facts say clearly that there has been no increase in mass killings, and certainly no epidemic" over the last 30 years.

Surely, though, we have to do something to stem the dangerous rise in gun ownership. The problem there is that gun ownership has fallen dramatically in the United States since the 1950s. Then, about half of Americans said they owned guns. Today, it is about a third, as professor Egan has noted.

In the last few years, gun ownership has experienced an upward swing. That increase coincided with the drop in gun-related homicides mentioned at the beginning of this editorial.

The idea that the United States is experiencing a rising tide of gun violence is simply false. That does not mean that we should pursue no legislative actions to curb mass killings. But those actions should be guided by facts, not emotional impulses.

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