Data: Same As It Ever Was

Were the Littleton, Colorado, school shootings on April 20, a "defining moment in public opinion" regarding gun control, as USA Today has put it? Not really, write analysts for Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks the use of statistics in public policy debates, in the group's July newsletter. "The Columbine tragedy merely returned public opinion to the levels of the early '90s," they say, "after a drop in support of stricter laws to 60 percent in February 1999." They point out that significant majorities have long favored tighter controls and that the pro-control proportion correlates most closely with the nation's murder rate: "The murder rate has varied between about 8 and 10 per 100,000 throughout the '80s and '90s. The high poll numbers favoring gun-control in the early part of the period correlate to a high murder rate, while the low figures in the mid-'80s match a lower rate, followed by higher numbers as the rate moved up once more in the early '90s. The low figures reported before Columbine may reflect the recent substantial drop in the murder rate to under 7 per 100,000."

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