Firearms Use in Violent Crime in Alaska and the U.S.

"Firearms Use in Violent Crime in Alaska and the U.S." by Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Justice Forum 16(2): 1, 6–8 (Summer 1999). This article presents figures on the use of firearms in the commission of violent crimes in Alaska and the United States as a whole from 1980 thorugh 1997. For these years firearms were used in a solid majority of the murders committed each year in the United States, with handguns the type of firearm most often used in these crimes. Figures for Alaska fluctuate, but in most of the years for which data are available, most murders and non-negligent manslaughters involved firearms use, and firearms were used in a substantial number of other violent crime categories, particularly robbery.

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According to annual figures from the Uniform Crime Reporting program of the FBI for the years 1980 through 1997, firearms were used in a solid majority of the murders committed each year in the nation as a whole. Handguns were the type of firearm used most often in these crimes. For Alaska, figures fluctuate more, but in most of the years for which data are available, the majority of murders and non-negligent homicides involved firearms. Other violent crime categories for which the UCR assembles data reveal less frequent, although still substantial use of firearms, particularly in the category of robbery.

The data discussed in this article and presented in the accompanying tables and figure have been assembled from Crime in the United States, the annual publication based on the UCR, and Crime Reported in Alaska, the annual publication of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, which details the state’s UCR figures. Some points should be noted regarding the data. First, the annual national totals for the various categories are estimates. In the category of murder and non-negligent homicide, a slightly different total is presented for each year for those murders on which supplemental data were supplied. This provides the basis for calculating the figures on firearm use. Next, some gaps in the series of numbers exist, particularly for Alaska. In the first years of the seventeen-year period discussed, the reporting did not include much supplemental data. Finally, although the UCR is conceived as a comprehensive national crime reporting program, in reality in Alaska, for any given year over this period, a number of police agencies from a variety of locations chose not to participate. Those departments choosing not to contribute figures have included at various times agencies located in comparatively sizeable communities.

Figure 1 linearly depicts the rises and falls in the numbers of homicides over the period studied. As can be seen, the number of murders committed with firearms, the number of murders committed with handguns, and the total number of murders in the U.S. describe irregular, but similar lines; that is, the peaks and valleys which occurred over the seventeen-year period in the two sub-categories detailing firearms use corresponded to similar rises and falls in the total number of homicides. Since 1993, there has been a decline in annual totals; a similar decline occurred in the early '80s.

Figure 1. Murders in the U.S. in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997

The more detailed presentation of data in Table 1 reveals that the highest annual number of homicides during the period occurred in 1993: 23,271. Since then, the total has dropped substantially—to 15,289 in 1997, which is the lowest of the entire period. The percentage of murders in which firearms were used varied from 58.3 per cent in 1983 to 70 per cent in 1994. The percentage committed with handguns varied from 43 per cent in 1985 to 58 per cent in 1994.

Table 1. Percentage of Murders in the U.S. in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997

In Alaska the percentage of murders committed with firearms fluctuates more widely over the same period, from 44 per cent in 1991 to 73 per cent in 1985. A couple points regarding the Alaska figures in Table 2 should be noted. First, since the total number of homicides in any given year is small, slight differences in numbers of those committed with firearms result in wide percentage differences. Also, the Alaska reporting did not begin to specify percentages committed with firearms until 1985 and actual numbers were not published until 1991.

Table 2. Percentage of Murders and Nonnegligent Manslaughters in Alaska in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997

In comparison to their use in murders, firearms are used in robberies and aggravated assaults much less often in both Alaska and the nation as a whole. Over the seventeen years, the percentage of robberies in the U.S. in which firearms were involved ranged from 33 per cent in 1987 to 42 per cent in 1994 (Table 3, Figure 2). For assaults, the percentages ranged from 20 per cent in 1997 to 25 per cent in 1993. In Alaska over the same period, the percentages for robbery ranged from 30 per cent in 1988 to 41.5 per cent in 1997, and for assaults, from 19 per cent in 1988 to 24.5 per cent in 1994 (Table 4, Figure 2). The Alaska high and low percentages for both robbery and aggravated assault are similar to those for the U.S. as a whole, although they occur in different years.

Table 3. Percentage of Murders, Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults in the U.S. in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997
Table 4. Percentage of Murders, Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults in Alaska in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997
Figure 2. Percentage of Murders, Robberies, and Aggravated Assaults in the U.S. and Alaska in Which Firearms Were Used, 1980-1997