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Gun violence falls, but most homicides by firearm

US report comes amid intense national divide

WASHINGTON — Gun violence has dropped sharply nationwide over the past two decades, but nearly three-quarters of all homicides are still committed with a firearm, the Justice Department said in a report released Tuesday.

The report, by the department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, painted an encouraging picture of long-term trends at a time of divisive political debate over guns and legislation to regulate them. Firearms-related homicides declined 39 percent between 1993 and 2011, the report said, while nonfatal firearms crimes fell 69 percent during that period.

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Yet the document also made clear that when people are killed, it is still most likely to be with a gun. In 2011 about 70 percent of all homicides were committed with a firearm, and the majority of those firearms were handguns.

The report, which echoes earlier findings of reductions in violent crime from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, comes amid an intense divide over guns, especially since December’s massacre of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Conn.

Newtown thrust gun control to the top of President Obama’s second-term agenda, and the White House pushed hard for a series of gun-control measures. But the effort unraveled under pressure from the gun rights lobby, and every major proposal was rejected in the Senate.

The biggest setback for the White House was the defeat of a compromise measure to expand background checks for firearms purchases. Gun-control proponents have since mobilized to revive the push for stricter gun laws, but gun rights groups might seize on one finding in Tuesday’s Justice Department report to argue against enhanced background checks.

Fewer than 1 percent of state prison inmates who possessed a gun when they committed their offense obtained the firearm at a gun show, the report said. Gun shows were central to the measure rejected in the Senate: It would have extended the background-check requirement to any sale at a gun show or advertised in print or online.

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