The 2016 GOP convention kicks off this week under the banner of "Make America Safe Again," the theme for Monday's festivities.
"From attacks on our own soil and overseas to the tragedy in Benghazi, the policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have left us vulnerable," the RNC's program reads. It builds off Trump's recent efforts to brand himself as a Nixonian "law-and-order" candidate. Last week on Twitter, Trump announced that crime was "out of control and rapidly getting worse."
If we're going to make America safe "again," the implication is that America was safe at some point in the not-too-distant past. But the problem with this notion is that, from the standpoint of crime statistics, America today is already safer than it has been in decades. In fact, today's homicide rate is about as low as it's been at any time since at least 1900. Take a look.
These figures come primarily from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. The pre-1960 data were compiled for the journal Demography in the 1990s and are culled primarily from death registrations and other historic data.
For most of the first half of the century, the homicide rate hovered between six and 10 murders per 100,000 residents. That figure fell precipitously starting in the late 1930s, and by the early 1960s had bottomed out around 4.5 homicides per 100,000.
Starting in the late 1960s, the murder rate began to climb again, hitting an apex of 10.2 homicides per 100,000 in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House. There was another spike in the early 1990s, but since then, the homicide rate has again fallen precipitously. In the past several years, the rate has hovered around the historic lows last seen in the early 1960s.
But wait, what about that "national crime wave"? It's true that the FBI's preliminary statistics for the first half of 2015 — the latest period for which there is data — shows an uptick in murders year-over-year: a 6.2 percent increase. But if we assume that increase held steady throughout the second half of 2015, that would give us an annual homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000 — roughly on par with 2012's figures, and lower than the rate in nearly every single year over the past century plus.
It's also true that some cities have experienced increases in crime. We've been hearing a lot about rising murders in places like Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, for instance. But as this Wonkblog analysis from earlier this year shows, a number of major U.S. cities also saw decreases in homicide, or were essentially flat.
Part of this is due to the natural noisiness of murder statistics. At the national level, homicides are incredibly rare — even during high-crime years. So in an era of historically low murder rates, like the one we're living in today, single-digit shifts can sometimes translate into large percentage changes.
This year appears to be shaping up similarly to 2015, murder-wise. New York is enjoying historically low murder rates this year. Homicides in Baltimore are about on par with last year's numbers. Homicides in Chicago, on the other hand, are surging.
But none of this really suggests that we're in the midst of a national crime wave. Despite city-to-city variation, the big picture remains the same: The homicide rate is historically low. Statistically speaking, you were more likely to get murdered in the 1950s than you are today.
America, in other words, is already safe. Policymakers should worry about how to keep it that way.
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