To President Biden, public health researchers, and the media, violent crime is all about guns. But a new survey finds that people are badly misinformed about how much violent crime involves guns. The average likely American voter is way off, thinking that over 46% of violent crimes involve guns. In fact, the true figure is less than 8%.
Not surprisingly, those who believe that most violent crime involves guns are more likely to view gun control as the solution.
Biden has given four major speeches on violent crime (here, here, here, and here). Each one of them was focused on enforcement of gun control laws. In the four speeches, he mentioned “gun” or “firearm” 179 times. The term “weapon,” sometimes in connection with “assault weapon,” was used another 31 times.
The words “crime,” “violence,” or “violent” were mentioned about half as often – 94 times. He only mentions the words “murder” and “homicide” seven times in these four presentations, and entirely omits them from his two most recent talks.
But this “guns first” approach ignores a basic fact – over 92% of violent crimes in America do not involve firearms. Although Biden blames guns for the increase in violent crime, the latest data show that gun crimes fell dramatically.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey, in the latest year available (2020), shows that there were 4,558,150 rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults, and the FBI reports 21,570 murders. Of those, 350,460 rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults (see Table 8) and 13,620 murders involved firearms. So, while it’s true that firearms are the weapon of choice in more than half the murders in this country, it’s also true that only 7.9% of violent crimes were committed with guns.
The new McLaughlin & Associates survey of 1,000 likely voters from April 20 to 26 for the Crime Prevention Research Center shows how misinformed people are. People across the country, of all races and incomes, have wildly inaccurate beliefs about how frequently violent crime involves guns.
Even so, there are large differences across groups. The average Democrat estimates that 56.9% of violent crimes involve guns, whereas the typical Republican gave an answer of 37%. Those with the highest incomes (over $250,000 per year) and those who work for the government give the highest numbers – 56.1% and 51% respectively. Women (50%) believe that more violent crimes involve guns than men do (43%). Urban Americans say 48%, whereas rural Americans say 40%. But the biggest difference is between blacks (59%) and Asians (31%).
The McLaughlin survey also gave people three options on the best way to fight crime: Pass more gun control laws, more strictly enforce current laws, or have police concentrate on arresting repeat violent criminals.
Some respondents at least got it right that less than 20% of violent crime involves guns. Just 8% prioritized more gun laws, and 15% focused on stricter enforcement of existing laws. An overwhelming 71% thought the best way of fighting crime was to arrest violent criminals.
Some likely voters thought that more than 80% of the violent crime involved guns. Most supported either more gun control laws (33%) or more strict enforcement of current gun laws (28%). Only 36% of them wanted the focus on arresting violent criminals.
Those who think that most violent crime is committed with guns consistently support more gun control. Those who don’t believe that instead want to focus on arresting violent criminals and keeping them in jail.
Perhaps the gun control debate would be very different if the media had done a better job of informing people about crime. The most newsworthy cases, unfortunately, don’t tend to be typical of violent crime. Focusing on how to solve 8% of violent crime does nothing to solve the other 92%.
John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center. Until January 2021, he was the senior adviser for research and statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy where he dealt with issues of vote fraud.