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Analysis

Fomenting fear as crime rates fall

 Be afraid. Be very afraid. And get armed.

This message, it seems, is being heeded by more and more Americans. It’s noteworthy for its own sake, but also because it mixes old beliefs with new ones – all as questionable as they are influential.

The first is that America is an increasingly dangerous place where citizens’ safety is in constant peril from violent criminals. Last year, for example, nearly two-thirds of respondents to a Gallup poll said crime was on the rise. In fact, all evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Violent crime rates across the nation sank by more than half in the 1990s, according to official figures, and remain near 20-year lows. For most citizens, these numbers say, the United States hasn’t been this safe since the 1960s. It’s truly a remarkable social phenomenon. A vigorous debate continues among scholars and practitioners over why crime has fallen so widely and so much. But none deny it.

Not so with many or most Americans. Why? There are probably multiple reasons, a Pew Researcher Center study notes, with some blaming the bloodthirsty fare offered by both the news and entertainment media (assuming there’s a difference). Another commonly cited source is overheated rhetoric from ambitious politicians, which played a major role in the nation’s mass incarceration binge of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But the persistence of the crime drop seems to have muted even these voices.

As for older pro-fear sources, it’s worth remembering that fear has long been a favored tool of marketers and advertisers, who are eager to warn us of the consequences of feeding the kids the wrong cereal or appearing in public in last year’s outfit. And then there’s the influence of the “fear/risk paradox,” which is the label long applied by scholars to the curious fact that so many people who are at the least risk of violent crime (e.g., wealthier people, elderly people) are most afraid of it.

But there’s another, relatively new possible contributor to the nation’s apparently irrational fear of crime: The growth of gun culture. Pew also found that, for the first time in its polling experience, more Americans (52 percent) said that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership (46 percent). This is the opposite of most findings of the past 20 years, and reflects the growth in pro-gun sentiment across the country. Another survey showed that protection is now the top reason gun owners offer for why they choose to own a gun. In 1999, it was hunting. Finally a recent Gallup survey found that that 63 percent of Americans say having a gun in the home makes it a safer place, compared with 30 percent who say it makes a home more dangerous. The former position is, of course, a favorite trope among the gunners, while the latter is frequently argued by gun-control advocates and researchers in public health.

As the Pew study concludes: “We are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership – not gun control – makes people safer.”

So, we have a country that’s increasingly fearful of crime, increasingly supportive of “gun rights,” and increasingly persuaded that having a gun in the house provides more safety – presumably against the hypothetical crime wave raging outside. Meanwhile, gun advocates, and merchants, who naturally emphasize the dangers we all face and the safety value of firearms, have in the past two decades emerged as major political players on the national scene. It’s of course impossible to draw causal links among these developments. But is equally hard to imagine that there’s no connection.

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Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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The decline of crime

Non-fatal violent crime victimizations per 100,000 U.S. adults

  • 1993 – 7,976.3
  • 2011 – 2,254.2

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