This is absolutely horrifying. At least seven people are dead in a shooting at a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Those who were killed include the shooter. Apparently others were injured, but it’s not clear how many.

No details have yet been been released about the gunman, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the shooting was racially motivated. I’d say the odds are good that the shooter was some idiot who believed that Sikhs are Muslims (and that Muslims, of course, are all terrorists).

This is a tragic situation and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. I no way wish to minimize the devastating losses they are suffering. But I did recently come across some interesting information about trends in the culture of guns and violence in the U.S. which I want to share here.

Following the Aurora shootings, NYU political scientist Patrick Egan wrote an illuminating post about gun and violent crime statistics over at the political science blog, Monkey Cage. Egan summarizes two major trends. There is this one, which I knew about:

First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration. Our perceptions of our own safety have shifted, as well. In the early 1980s, almost half of Americans told the General Social Survey (GSS) they were “afraid to walk alone at night” in their own neighborhoods; now only one-third feel this way.

The other major trend, which I confess I was not aware of, is this:

Second, for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows. Since 1973, the GSS has been asking Americans whether they keep a gun in their home. In the 1970s, about half of the nation said yes; today only about one-third do. Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.

Egan says that there is no easy explanation for either of these trends. Personally, I’m partial to the theory that declining rates of lead exposure are driving the decrease in violent crime. I’m not familiar with what the research has to say about declining gun ownership rates, but surely there’s some connection between that decline and the fact that violent crime rates are down and people feel more safe.

Media stories such as this one about today’ shooting that understandably, and rightfully, grab a lot of attention sometimes encourage us to lose the forest for the trees. While even one life lost to violent crime is completely unacceptable, it’s encouraging to know that overall, violent crime trends in this country are improving. It’s one small spot of bright news amidst the constant barrage of terrible news we all hear in this world, day in and day out.

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Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee