While meeting with a group of sheriffs from around the country, Donald Trump made the following claim: “The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in forty-seven years.” As reported by Andrew Shepperson of Guns.com, this assertion is a wild distortion of what in fact has been a small increase in the rate of homicides over the last two years, while it remains true to say that a smaller proportion of the population are being murdered each year than in previous decades.
As I’ve discussed before, the evidence on rates of homicide in America shows that we’re at a historic low. Why this is the case is a matter of debate, discussed at great length and detail in Steven Pinker’s book, Better Angels of Our Nature, among other sources. Reducing poverty as a percentage of the population and in its effects, offering education to all, and having a functioning government that is relatively free of corruption are a big part of the answer. Whether we’ll continue these things is more and more in doubt, and I’ll return to why that may be later in this.
One specific type of homicide, the killing of law enforcement officers, was the subject of an executive order signed by the president this week. The order directs the Justice Department to federal charges against anyone who commits acts of violence against cops. Trump stated regarding the order that “it’s a shame what’s been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers. That’s going to stop as of today.” But even here, we are witnessing an exaggeration. The number of law enforcement officers who have died each year during our history since 1791 is available, as well as a specific analysis of trends over the last fifty years. And the evidence shows that the number of police officer deaths has always been a small part of total homicides, rising along with the population increases and reaching high points in two moments of crisis, the Depression and the turmoil of the seventies. The largest number came in 1974 with 280 deaths, and there was a spike in 2001, thanks to the 9/11 attacks, but generally since the seventies, the country has seen a slow decline in the rate.
What is the motive here to inflate the figures to create the impression of a great deal more violence going on than is real? I’ll stroll out onto a limb and suggest that the goal is security theater. It’s the same purpose here that we experienced under the George W. Bush administration when we were told to be afraid, made to be groped or X-rayed to get on a plane, and compelled if visited by an FBI agent to give up records on students, library patrons, and patients. When people are living in fear, it’s much easier to get them to hand over their rights to a populist who promises to keep us safe.
And it’s all about increasing power for the man in charge, not in any way for the benefit of everyone. There are many things we must do to fight this — in the courts, at the ballot box, and in our conversations with the people around us — and the first thing is to be aware of the facts. Law enforcement officers in particular and the American people in general are not in extraordinary danger — yet. We are in the least violent period in our history — for now. And it’s up to us to continue the trend to an even more stable, civil, and peaceful democracy.
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