In the United States, opinion polls over the last several years have consistently placed violence near the top of the public’s list of concerns. This seems to happen regardless of whether homicide rates are climbing or falling. In this paper, we examine the time trends in homicide rates in the United States, and find that the fears are not totally inappropriate, even in the recent years when homicide rates have been falling. We find that, while there has been a significant decline in homicides committed by older offenders, homicides committed by younger offenders grew dramatically beginning in 1985. An important factor in that growth has been a significant increase in the availability of guns to young people. By examining time trends in age-specific arrest rates for homicide (gun homicide compared to non-gun homicide) and similar trends in drug-related arrest rates (juveniles compared to adults), the role of gun availability, especially as it has risen through the recruitment of young people into drug markets, is identified as a probable cause of these homicide trends. Further examination of mortality rates-due to gun homicides compared to nongun homicides as well as gun suicides compared to non-gun suicides-for various age and race groups also implicates gun availability as a key contributing factor to the growth in youth homicide.
The November 1995 publication of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI’s”) Uniform Crime Reports for 1994 generated widespread enthusiasm that the growth in homicide rates experienced by the United States since the mid-1980s had finally come to an end. The report indicated that homicide rates peaked in 1991 with lower rates occurring over the next three years. To some observers, this may have indicated that the growing public anxiety about homicides might well subside.
In any event, concern over recent trends in aggregate homicide rates may have been misplaced. Those rates have been impressively steady for more than twenty years. Contrary to most people’s perception that homicide rates have been increasing dramatically over time, the time series of homicide rates from 1972 through 1995 (Figure 1) shows no discernible trend. Instead, rates have oscillated between eight and ten per 100,000 since 1972. In contrast, the time series for robbery rates, which follows a very similar oscillatory pattern, does display a slight upward trend whose slope is approximately one percent of the mean of the series.