It has long been a tenet of faith with the gun violence prevention (GVP) community that our homicide rate is far beyond the homicide rates of in other advanced (OECD) countries because we have so many guns. And study after study shows that although our overall violence is about the same as everywhere else, our violence is more fatal because so many people each year die from injuries caused by guns.
This truism then morphs into a second truism, namely, that minorities, particularly African-American adolescents and young men, are disproportionately represented in the numbers killed each year with guns. This latter belief is bandied over the media because every weekend, it seems, Chicago is ablaze with guns, ditto other major urban centers with large minority populations and intractable inner-city poverty like St. Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans.
I have never felt entirely comfortable with this line of reasoning because it assumes that without all the guns floating around, we would be as peaceful and non-violent as most other advanced countries, an assumption which is simply not true. If we compare our non-gun homicides to homicides in the rest of the OECD, we still wind up with a homicide rate that is 2 to 3 times greater than anywhere else. If America was a gun-free zone, we would also have to believe that some of the people who now commit gun murders would go about killing in some other way. In which case, our homicide rate without access to guns would be 4 or 5 times greater than what we see in Italy, Germany, Austria or France.
What concerns me about the public health research on gun violence is that I don’t see any of these scholars, whose work I support and admire, looking at why the U.S. is a more violent country, not just because of our access to guns, but just because we happen to be more violent pari passu (which means colloquially, ‘that’s the way we are.’)
Take alook at a story on the website of my friend John Lott, who analyzed county-level homicide numbers for all 3,100 counties and discovered that half of the murders committed in 2014 occurred in 2% of all counties, whereas more than half of all counties had no murders at all. Which counties were the worst when it comes to violence? Counties that contained cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, you know the drill. What John Lott told us in 2017 is what GVP scholars have been saying for the past 20 years.
There’s only one little problem with both points of view. When we think about community safety, we not only need to know the number of injuries, but the rate at which those injuries occur. It’s the injury rate, not the raw number which defines the relative safety or lack of safety in the place where we live.
Everyone knows that Atlanta has a high crime rate, in 2014 the homicide rate was 13. But take a outside of Atlanta to Bibb County where the 2014 murder rate was 11 – this year it will be 19 or worse. New Orleans racked up a murder rate in 2014 of 40, but tiny Acadia Parish located in the rural, northwest part of the state, didn’t do all that bad with a murder rate of 26. For comparison’s sake, the per-100K national murder rate in 2014 was around 5.
There are counties like Acadia and Bibb in many states, and in case you are wondering, in many of those counties the majority of the residents aren’t minorities, they happen to be white. If you live in a toney, upper-class Los Angeles neighborhood you’ll never experience the violence that goes on in East LA or Watts. But if you live in Jefferson County, AR, where the murder rate is above 20 per year, you can’t avoid the violence unless you move away.
In this country fatal violence isn’t just a function of access to guns, something else is also going on. Figuring that one out might be a good New Year’s resolution for 2018.