Handgun crime soared dramatically in 1992, setting records both in the number of violent crimes committed by individuals armed with handguns and in the number of nonfatal crimes, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
The figures, the latest available, support police statements about the growing use of handguns in a wide variety of crimes. "It certainly shows that we are living in a more dangerous society" and reinforces the Administration's argument for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, said Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern.
The Justice Department report says individuals armed with handguns committed a record 930,700 violent crimes in 1992 and also set a record of 917,500 nonfatal crimes in which handguns were used, almost 50% higher than the average for the previous five years.
No group was more vulnerable to the trend than young black males, the department said. Black males between the ages of 16 and 19 were four times as likely to be the victims of handgun crime as white males their age. Black men age 20 to 24 were three times as likely as white men to be victims.
In addition to the record level of nonfatal crimes committed by individuals with handguns, the department said FBI statistics indicate that handgun homicides reached 13,200 in 1992, a 24% increase over the five-year average.
Tonya Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Assn.'s legislative arm, called the survey "somewhat flawed."
She accused the Justice Department of inflating the gun statistics by lumping together crimes in which a handgun may have been involved--for example, used in a pistol-whipping but not discharged--with those instances in which a gun was used "as a firearm."
"Just take a look at the city of Washington, D.C., as a microcosm," she said, citing the city's 400 murders last year. "It isn't the guns (causing the crimes). It is the recidivist criminals not being taken care of by our criminal-justice system."
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Congress' leading gun-control advocates, said the survey "gives the lie to the NRA's arguments."
"I think it shows that the problem with handguns is escalating. . . . You know that more has to be done to get them off the street," he said.
The report by the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics was based on a survey of approximately 100,000 crime victims conducted by the Census Bureau.
Stern said the annual survey is regarded as a highly reliable indicator of crime.
Not all of the statistics released Sunday were ominous. While overall crimes were up and the use of handguns reached record levels, the report also says an individual's chances of being a victim of a rape, robbery or an assault in 1992 remained below record high rates set in 1981.
According to the department's figures, the rate for those crimes fell to 35 per 1,000 people from 39 per 1,000 in 1981.
And earlier this month, the FBI said that in 1993, serious reported crimes dropped 3% and that violent offenses decreased by 1% last year.
In 1992, about 13% of violent crimes--one in eight rapes, robberies and assaults--were committed by individuals with handguns.
That trend, reflecting growing use of handguns by criminals, was shown in the sharp rise in the rates of nonfatal handgun crimes.
These rose to 4.5 crimes per 1,000 people age 12 or older, considerably higher than the record of four per 1,000 set in 1982, the report says.
It found that individuals armed with handguns fired their weapons in about 17% of all nonfatal crimes, wounding the victim about 3% of the time.
The survey also found that 38% of the victims who were armed attacked the individuals seeking to harm them. One fifth of those attempting to protect themselves with a firearm were injured, compared to almost half who used other weapons or had no weapon at all, the department said.