December 5, 2015


Viral meme says gun homicides are down 49 percent in past 12 years (Louis Jacobson, June 16th, 2014, Politifact)

In the social media wars over gun control, a new social-media meme makes the case that gun violence is wildly exaggerated by the media.

"Gun homicide is down 49 percent in the past 12 years. Only 12 percent of Americans know that. Tell us again how unbiased our media is," the Facebook post said.

A reader sent us the posting and asked us to fact-check it. We'll focus our attention on the claim about gun homicides, but we'll also touch on the media question later on.

Trends in gun homicide

We began by looking at year-by-year statistics on gun homicides compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the meme's language was clear about focusing on "homicides," we didn't include statistics for suicides, gun shootings with undetermined causes, or "legal interventions," such as justified shootings by police. The most recent data is for 2010, so we went as far back as 1998 to define the 12-year period. [...]

This disproves the clear wording of the meme. Over the past 12 years, the number of gun homicides is down 6 percent, and the rate of gun homicides is down 16 percent. Both are well below the 49 percent claimed in the post.

However, we also found that the statistic did come from somewhere.

The 49 percent decline emerged from 2013 report by the Pew Research Center. It found that gun homicides (or more specifically, the rate of gun homicides per 100,000 residents) had declined by 49 percent between their peak in 1993 and 2010, a period of 17 years. We double-checked Pew's calculations of the CDC figures and found that they were correct. Between 1993 and 2010, the gun homicide rate fell from 7.02 per 100,000 to 3.59 per 100,000, or a decline of precisely 49 percent. [...]

It's possible to chalk this mistake up to a simple typo -- after all, if the claim had said 17 years rather than 12, it would have been correct. However, the time frame raises important issues.

For one thing, the CDC data show that the big decline in gun homicides came between 1993 and 2000, which happens to coincide with the years Bill Clinton was president. While Clinton and his policies are hardly the only reason for this decline, his signing of tighter gun-control legislation makes him unpopular among the kinds of gun supporters who might have created this meme. By contrast, by framing the decline as happening over the past 12 years, the meme implies that George W. Bush -- a president much more friendly to gun-rights supporters -- can take some credit for the decline.

Posted by at December 5, 2015 8:25 AM