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WASHINGTON _ In the bitter political conflict over gun control, defenders of gun rights accuse the Clinton administration of failing to enforce existing firearms laws. One National Rifle Association leader went so far as to declare that President Clinton has "blood . . . on his hands." But statistics clearly show a stunning reduction in gun crime. So in this election year, as the gun issue rises in visibility and intensity, both sides have a stake in denying the other credit for the nation's progress against gun violence. The facts are clear, even if the underlying reasons are not. Since Clinton was elected in 1992, number of violent crimes has dropped sharply, and the percentage of crimes involving guns has fallen at an even faster rate.
Overall, violent crimes excluding rapes fell from 1.8 million in 1992 to 1.4 million in 1998, according to the FBI. Moreover, the use of firearms has fallen as well, from 31 percent of all violent crimes in 1992 to 25 percent in 1998. Although the FBI categorizes rape as a violent crime, its annual crime statistics do not track weapons used in rapes.
Other evidence suggests fewer people now are carrying guns on the streets, according to Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After peaking in 1993, arrest rates for illegal possession of a weapon have dropped sharply across the nation, particularly among 15- to 24-year-olds, an age group that tends to produce the most crime, he said.
Credit for the improvement in the incidence of gun-related crime is difficult to assign because crime statistics represent such a complicated mix of cause and effect. It is difficult to untangle and isolate federal authorities' influence on crime from the impact of local law enforcement efforts and such other factors as the decline of the crack cocaine drug wars.
Also, most criminologists believe that the Clinton-backed Brady law, which in 1994 began requiring background checks for gun purchases, has had at least some role in suppressing gun violence _ but that's another factor difficult to quantify.
But the success _ or …