Behind drop in US murder rate, a decline in gun crime

Gun-control efforts and crackdowns on firearm crimes, may be abating

American cities with high murder rates have struggled to cut gun violence for decades, experimenting with buy-back programs, community policing, even lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

The feeling on the street was that these efforts were doing a lot of good. But now there's growing proof: The US murder rate declined 7 percent last year - and most of the drop is attributed to a sharp decrease in killings involving firearms. Moreover, fewer guns were used in robberies, which were down by 10 percent.

Crime rates, including that for murder, haven't been this low since the 1960s.

Good economic times is credited, in part, for the positive news. But for criminologists and observers who study America's burgeoning gun culture, the decline in firearm violence can be attributed to a series of state and federal antiviolence efforts - stricter enforcement of existing laws and tougher prosecution - and not one single gun-control law.

"It would be easy to attribute this entirely to gun-control efforts or to dismiss gun-control efforts entirely," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." "My guess is the truth is in the middle."

Innovative programs aimed at reducing illegal use of firearms are in place around the country, and being praised by both sides of the gun debate.

In Richmond, Va., for example, murders with guns have been reduced as much as 66 percent by prosecuting gun crime to the full extent of the law. Similar successful campaigns are under way in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

"There have been efforts across the country, particularly in cities, to prosecute those who carry [firearms]. Police have been involved in more stop-and-frisk activities," says Professor Spitzer at the State University of New York at Cortland.

As a result, fewer juveniles - particularly young men statistically more prone to impulse or aggression - are acting out on that aggression without using a gun.

Some states are also double-checking gun buyers in addition to federal background checks. Others have limited the purchase of handguns to one per month.

At the federal level, policymakers who support gun restriction credit the Brady law of 1994, which restricts the purchase of firearms and mandates a background check. As many as 300,000 gun sales have been denied since the law took effect.

"It shows that gun control is working, and the effect of some of the new gun controls," says Kristen Rand, director of federal policy at the Violence Policy Center in Washington.

Ms. Rand points to the tightening of licensed gun dealers that numbered nearly a quarter million in 1992. After implementing tougher restrictions to weed out disreputable dealers, there are now close to 100,000. "The tightening up of access to firearms has been an important factor in the decrease of gun crime," she says.

A Gallup poll released yesterday shows that 35 percent of Americans report having a firearm in their home, compared with almost 50 percent in 1959.

But others suggest that the relaxing of gun laws at the state level, like allowing more legitimate gun owners to carry concealed weapons, is having a positive impact. One national study indicates that gun use deters as many as 3 million crimes a year.

"The murder rate has been declining for some years, in fact before the Brady law," says Larry Pratt, executive director of the Virginia-based Gun Owners of America. "The concealed-carry laws on the books, liberalized during this time, have enabled Americans to protect themselves whether outside or in their homes."

But gun foes say a disproportionately high number of handguns cause death or injury. Long guns, like rifles and shotguns, were used in less than 5 percent of reported crime, Rand points out. The balance were handguns.

"Just because [gun violence] is not as high as it was five years ago doesn't mean that we don't have a huge gun-related problem in America," she says.

In a bid to jump start gun-control legislation on Capitol Hill, President Clinton yesterday joined hundreds of high-schoolers and democratic lawmakers to draw attention to his legislative priorities.

Mr. Clinton is seeking to close what he sees as loopholes in the Brady law, implement legislation banning the sale and distribution of assault weapons, and fund the hiring of 50,000 new police officers in areas still plagued by high crime.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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