Last week, critics denounced Donald Trump for painting a grim view of a world in which crime was skyrocketing, more police officers were assassinated on the job, and terrorism was on the rise throughout President Barack Obama’s time in office. I called it a characterization of “a very dangerous America that simply doesn’t exist.”
On Wednesday, Democrats also raised warnings about crime — specifically, the high levels of gun violence in America. On a night dedicated to national security, speaker after speaker cited statistics about how, for example, there are 92 gun deaths in the US on average each day.
Some conservative writers, such as Charles Cooke, asked why that is. “Is crime still at historic lows,” Cooke asked, “or is that something that is just worth pointing out when Donald Trump is the one painting dark pictures?” Cooke was, presumably, pointing to what he saw as a big example of hypocrisy in the media.
The difference here is context and framing. It is true that both parties brought up alarming crime statistics. But Democrats are pointing to a level of gun violence that, even after crime has dropped over the past few decades, remains much higher than other developed countries. Republicans under Trump, meanwhile, have insinuated that crime is actually on the rise under Obama. One of these is true; the other is not.
Democrats aren’t just pointing to crime. They’re pointing to how the US still compares with other countries.
For Democrats, talking about gun violence is a bit of a balancing act: They want to acknowledge that crime is at historic lows under the Obama administration, while recognizing that America still has a gun violence problem not typically seen in other developed nations — one that, according to the research, can be solved with restrictions on firearms.
It is true that crime has been dropping for the past few decades — the murder rate, for example, fell by more than half since 1980. But it’s also true that America still has much more gun violence than any other developed country in the world: The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times Sweden’s, and nearly 16 times Germany’s, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian.
There are several reasons for this — including cultural differences, poverty, and racial segregation. But one big reason, according to empirical research, is guns.
The US has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated in 2007, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world's second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
The prevalence of guns and America’s extraordinary levels of gun violence are linked. As Vox's Zack Beauchamp explained, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not — contrary to the old conventional wisdom — have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
The idea is simple: The prevalence of guns can cause petty arguments and conflicts to escalate into deadly encounters. People of every country get into fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it's much more likely that someone will get angry during an argument or conflict, pull out a gun, and kill someone.
The research also shows gun restrictions can prevent more deaths. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns were often followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
This doesn’t mean Democrats always have the right solutions. As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox, many of the proposals put forward by Democrats are so narrow and small that they likely wouldn’t do much to reduce America’s gun violence down to other developed countries’ levels. To really achieve that kind of reduction, Democrats will have to go much bigger and stricter — an approach that Democrats see as very politically risky in a country that loves guns.
Still, these broad ideas are what Democrats are talking about when they mention gun violence. They are not saying that crime and gun violence are getting worse. They are saying that the levels of gun violence America experiences are far above what other developed nations see, and studies suggest that restricting access to guns could help close that gap.
Trump is both misleading Americans and scapegoating minorities. That’s very dangerous.
By contrast, Trump’s framing of crime is both wrong and has a different goal in mind.
At the Republican convention, Trump clearly meant to paint a picture of an America in decline. As he put it, “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”
It’s simply not true that America is on the reverse. Violent crime is still, overall, down during Obama’s time in office. The FBI statistics show murder rates — a reliable proxy for measuring crime — hit record lows in 2013 and 2014. (The FBI won’t release figures for 2015 and 2016 until later this year and next year, respectively.)
This is obviously different from suggesting that America is getting better but still has a bigger problem than other developed nations. It’s simply not true that the US is on the long-term decline, but it is true that it could still stand to improve relative to its peers.
What’s more, Trump is doing all of this specifically to paint a picture of an America that’s in decline due to minorities. Trump launched his campaign promising to build a wall to stop Mexican immigrants whom he described as rapists and criminals. Later on, he called for a ban on all Muslims coming into the US — a ban he recently expanded to encompass entire countries, including France — as he blamed them for terrorism.
He’s also taken on the mantle of the “law and order” candidate. This is an obvious dog whistle playing to white fears of black crime. But it’s also something Trump can only pull off if people really believe that America is in total disarray — hence his attempts to make the country appear that way, despite the crime statistics.
This is dangerous, divisive rhetoric. It shatters American norms against racism. It pins the problem on minorities — an extremely dangerous approach to any issue — while neglecting the real problems that contribute to crime. (As Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox, Trump’s speech didn’t include any crime-fighting policies — much less ones supported by the great amount of research work in this area.)
This is what makes Trump’s fearmongering about crime different: He’s not only wrong about the trends; he’s also wrong — morally and empirically — about the solutions. In this context, it’s necessary to point out that brown people aren’t destroying the world. Really.
So Trump and Democrats may be talking about the same general topic, but one side is simply coming at it from a much more grounded basis.