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Gun deaths are down as debate rages

Guns recovered from revoked FOID cardholders Cook County. / phofrom Cook County Sheriff's office

Guns recovered from revoked FOID cardholders in Cook County. / photo from Cook County Sheriff's office

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Updated: June 11, 2013 6:25AM

Amid the gun control debate following the Newtown killings, average Americans could be forgiven for thinking — as polling shows most do — that gun violence is higher than 20 years ago. The truth is exactly the opposite — both the number and rate of gun murders have plunged since 1993.

In what can only be interpreted as a setback to the gun control crusade, two new studies document a remarkable trend in firearm crime. Gun-related homicides in 2011 numbered 11,101, down from 18,253 in 1993 — a 39 percent decline, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the number of non-fatal firearm victims in the same period fell by more than two-thirds, from 1.5 million in 1993 to 467,300 in 2011. Separately, the Pew Research Center found that the nation’s gun homicide rate had fallen 49 percent between 1993 and 2010.

These declines came as the population of the United States increased, gun sales soared, and concealed-carry laws multiplied. Yes, the decline came as overall violent crime fell, guns account for 70 percent of murders, and major cities like Chicago are plagued by violence. But the bottom line is firearm violence has fallen to the point that most gun deaths aren’t murders — six in 10 of them are suicides.

The de rigueur response to almost any event of national import by Washington in general and liberals in particular is to enact a new law. President Barack Obama, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other gun control advocates seized the grief and outrage that followed the murders of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School to press for new gun control legislation. But it turned out that the failed bill they pushed in the Senate, expanded background checks, would not have prevented Newtown or other recent mass shootings.

Increasing background checks was supported by big poll numbers, but that was overwhelmed by its opponents among gun owners who feared it would create a paper trail amounting to a de facto national gun registry. That may seem far-fetched, but no more so than the paranoia of the hard-line church-state separatists who see in every Christmas creche on the town square, in every Cross at a memorial to the war dead and even in a display of faith by high school cheerleaders another step down the road to a state-established religion.

With more gun ownership, America does have a higher homicide rate than other developed nations. Part of the response to that can be reasonable gun control legislation such as a bill advanced by a Senate committee this week to increase penalties for straw gun purchases.

But enforcing current laws also is part of the response. For example, stop-and-frisk searches by police have reduced crime in New York.

And when we respond to searing crimes like Newtown, we must address the issue of mental health. The 1960s closing of state mental health hospitals and the expansion of civil rights legislation and litigation to prevent the forced treatment or hospitalization of the dangerously mentally ill have left too many violent people walking the streets.

The hue and cry from Obama, Bloomberg and company for more gun laws was in no way matched by a push from them for new mental health legislation. Yet it turns out that some states are lax in adding mental health cases to the background check registry. And the Treatment Advocacy Center of Arlington, Va., says that 50 percent of mass killings are committed by individuals with untreated severe mental illnesses. I’ve never owned a firearm and support reasonable gun legislation, but given the facts, has the legislative emphasis after Sandy Hook been focused too much on guns and not enough on the violently mentally ill?

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