Every year the Violence Policy Center issues a depressingly similar report on gun death rates in all 50 states. Based on data from the CDC, the report appears to confirm a basic tenet of the gun-sense approach to gun violence, namely, that states with high rates of gun death rates have fewer gun violence prevention laws and tend to have higher per capita ownership of guns. The report ranks all 50 states by the rate of gun violence, the highest being Alaska at 19.59 per 100,000, the lowest being Hawaii at 2.71. Of the 50 states, 31 rank at or above the national mean of 10.64 and the other 19 below, with the lowest 7 states being Hawaii and 6 Northeastern states which traditionally have the tightest laws and the lowest per-capita gun ownership rates. A quick glance at the state-level chart appears to confirm the VPC’s basic argument about the connection between gun violence prevention laws, rates of gun ownership and death rates involving guns.
This is all fine and well except for two little things. First, the gun “violence” captured by the VPC is of two very different types. In the case of the five states with the highest rates of gun deaths, two of them – Alaska and Wyoming – have extremely low homicide rates (according to the FBI,) the gun death rate in these two states reflecting abnormally high suicide. Is gun suicide is a form of gun violence? Of course, but laws restricting access to guns by persons considering suicide would have to be much different measures than laws that keep crime-prone individuals from getting their hands on a gun.
Second, states that have strong gun violence prevention laws and low per capita gun ownership are able to institute laws preventing gun violence precisely because gun owners don’t constitute a threat at the ballot box, the recent re-election of Connecticut’s Governor Dannell Malloy a case in point. Do strong gun laws prevent gun violence or does the lack of gun violence and the lack of gun ownership make it easier to pass such laws? It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question but my state – Massachusetts – passed a very strong gun violence prevention law in 1998, and while the state now ranks near the bottom in gun violence rates today, it also ranked near the bottom before the 1998 law was passed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to undermine or devalue in any way the important work of the Violence Policy Center on issues like gun violence or the other problems which Josh Sugarmann and his team tackle every day. Nevertheless, I still believe a basic question is being overlooked. And the question has just been addressed frontally in a new book, Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy, which takes the reader through a series of murder investigations conducted by detectives of the LAPD.
The bottom line is that for all the talk about America’s abnormally high gun violence rate, the fact is that one specific group – African-American males – constitutes 6 percent of the population but 40% of the people killed every year. Pretend this group does not exist, pull their numbers out of the overall murder count, and America isn’t such a violent place. Leovy’s argument is that in terms of addressing this problem, Black homicide victims don’t exist. Her book is an attempt to “penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide,” for which she offers some tentative but hardly compelling ideas.
When Leovy writes about events at the street level, her descriptions are remarkably vivid and clear. When she brings a wider sociological perspective to the problem, the text becomes suffuse and vague. To her credit, she admits that we simply don’t know why black-on-black homicide, even with today’s lowered numbers, remains so disproportionate when compared to violence levels experienced by any other race. The same, for that matter, could be said about gun violence and in the face of such uncertain explanations, we might be a little more modest in assuming that we know how to bring gun murders down.