FBI Study Finds Gun Use in
Violent Crimes Declining
By Fox Butterfield
In the clearest evidence yet that recent efforts to reduce gun violence through new laws and police pressure are working, an FBI report released Sunday shows that a 7 percent drop in homicides in 1998 was accounted for entirely by a decrease in killings committed with guns.
The report also indicates that a significant drop in robberies carried out with guns helped account for a 10 percent decline in robberies nationwide, the biggest decrease of any one category of crime.
Overall, the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report found that violent crimes and property crimes each dropped 6 percent last year, marking the seventh consecutive year serious crime has fallen and the largest single yearly decline in the 1990s. The national murder rate has now fallen to 6.3 per 100,000, which was the level in 1967, when crime first exploded in the United States.
Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the most important news in the FBI report was the evidence that the use of guns in homicides and robberies was declining.
"These numbers suggest to me that the efforts to control the availability of guns, especially in the hands of young people, are having some effect," Blumstein said.
Among these measures are increased efforts by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to trace guns used in crimes; the tighter federal restrictions imposed on gun purchases by the so-called Brady law of 1994, named after James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan; and new gun control laws passed by numerous states, like those limiting purchasers to one handgun a month.
In addition, the police and prosecutors in many cities, including New York and Boston, have devised innovative strategies to cut off the supply of illegal handguns to criminals and juveniles or make them wary about carrying guns for fear of arrest.
Another good sign in the report, Blumstein said, was that the percentage of homicide victims who were female dropped 11 percent in 1998, suggesting that legal and social efforts to prevent domestic abuse were working.
The report also found that the proportion of victims who knew their killers rose to 51 percent in 1998 from 48 percent in 1997, meaning that there were fewer homicides in which the victims were strangers. This is another encouraging development, Blumstein said, because the random, violent street crimes that mushroomed with the crack epidemic of the late 1980s were disproportionately committed by young people against strangers.
The report said that arrests of juveniles for violent crimes fell 8 percent in 1998, compared to a 4 percent drop in adult arrests. It was an increase in juvenile crime in the late 1980s that caused crime rates to soar.
Geoffrey Canada, the president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a nonprofit social service agency in Harlem, said the drop in crime by young people was "a reality I see."
While politicians and criminal justice experts have attributed the decline in crime to tougher police tactics or longer prison sentences, Canada said he believed much of the decrease was a result of a change in the attitudes of young people in the inner cities.
"The notion of the late 1980s and early '90s that crime was an option for young people, a way to get their sneakers or movie tickets or buy an apartment building, that whole way of thinking has changed dramatically," Canada said.
The change has worked like a contagion in reverse, he said: "The fewer kids who do crime, the fewer will do it."
Another factor, Canada said, is that prolonged prosperity has finally provided more jobs in poor minority neighborhoods, "so people now see other people working and they get the message that work pays, crime doesn't."
James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, cautioned that Americans might be becoming too complacent after seven consecutive years of declining crime.
"What goes down will go up," Fox said. "If you don't continue to work hard at crime prevention, it's like going off a diet."
In fact, police in New York City reported in June that the number of killings to that point this year had increased 6 percent over the comparable period in 1998. Fox said that trend had continued.
The new FBI report said there were 16,914 homicides nationwide in 1998, of which 10,975 were committed with guns, down from a total of 18,210 in 1997 of which 12,346 involved guns. The reduction by 1,371 in murders involving a firearm was greater than the drop of 1,296 in overall murders.
Similarly, the report said that robberies committed with guns fell to 38 percent of all robberies in 1998 from 40 percent in 1997.
Handguns were by far the most common weapons in killings, accounting for 52 percent, while rifles and shotguns each accounted for only 4 percent of all homicides, the report said.
The predominant role played by handguns in homicide underscores the belief, held by officials in the 28 cities and counties that have filed lawsuits against the firearms industry, that America's gun violence problem is largely a handgun problem.
As has been true for as long as crime statistics have been kept, the FBI report found that the South had the highest homicide rate, 8 per 100,000, compared to 6 per 100,000 for the Midwest and West and only 4 per 100,000 for the Northeast.
The FBI report is based on police arrest reports. It measures the violent crimes of murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault and the property crimes of burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny and arson.
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