Gun-Weary Americans Applaud Controls

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The massacre at Columbine High School, coming up on its first anniversary April 20, has kept crime - especially juvenile crime - high among voters' top concerns. Worries about youth violence are even shaping political events such as the Million Mom March, scheduled for May 14, Mother's Day, in Washington, D.C., to protest "bipartisan ineptitude" in controlling guns. On the other side of the issue, the National Rifle Association is conducting a voter registration drive and calling for tougher law enforcement in lieu of additional gun laws.

About seven in ten Americans say a candidate's positions on crime, guns, and violence will be a very important factor affecting their votes in the upcoming presidential election. But complicating matters for candidates is the fact that most Americans support a blend of solutions that cross ideological lines. Solid majorities, for example, are "conservative" in saying it's more important for government to be tough on crime than it is to protect the rights of the accused. At the same time, most people also support more "liberal" approaches, such as juvenile crime prevention programs and gun control.

Crime is a perennial concern in the United States, the most violent of all industrial nations; the FBI estimates that 83 percent of Americans can expect to be victims of violent or property crime at least once in their lifetimes. Little wonder, then, that about 70 percent of Americans believe crime rates are rising, according to recent surveys. Fear of lawlessness and daily media accounts of shootings, robberies, and other events have become part of our national culture.

But, in fact, the nation's overall crime rates have declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s. Even juvenile crime rates, while still high, have settled back to the levels of more than a decade ago. Criminologists attribute these downward trends to a number of factors, including the booming economy, increasing rates of incarceration, declining crack and cocaine use, and a dip in the number of young males, the group most prone to violent crime.

Public fears may be fueled by intense, and some say disproportionate, news coverage. Between 1992 and 1996, when the national homicide rate fell 20 percent, coverage of youth and adult homicide increased by 721 percent on three television network news programs, according to the Center on Media and Public Affairs. And in 1998, TV news about teenagers mostly dealt with their criminal acts, even though less than one-half of 1 percent of juveniles were arrested for a violent crime that year, the Berkeley Media Studies Group reports.

Regardless, the bloodbath in Littleton, Colorado, following a spate of other school shootings, rocked the nation. The events reignited public debate about parental supervision, the accessibility of guns, violence in the popular culture, the teaching of moral values, and the adequacy of youth crime prevention and treatment programs. Many Americans were also stunned that all of the shootings took place in seemingly untroubled rural and suburban areas, and not in inner-city school districts with reputations for violence. "If it happened in Littleton, it could happen in my hometown," people told poll-takers and news reporters again and again. The tragedy drove home the point that researchers have been making for years: Juvenile violence is a national problem. In fact, during the mid-1990s, juvenile arrest rates rose faster, in percentage terms, in suburban and rural areas than in urban ones.

Gun control stands at the center of today's public debate about crime and draws more support from women and Democrats than men and Republicans. At the same time, overwhelming majorities of Americans support new restrictions on handguns, including child safety locks, mandatory safety courses, and registration - but not outright bans. And while voters are keenly interested in what candidates have to say about crime and guns, most say they will consider the candidates' stands on guns in context with their positions on a variety of other important issues. Only about one in seven Americans say they will vote only for a candidate who shares their views on gun ownership.

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