Our friends at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) have just released a detailed report on Black homicide in 2016, which shows an overall increase from 2015 of roughly 10 percent. The 2015 homicide rate for Blacks was 15 percent above 2014, but the 2017 rate actually shows a slight decline from 2016. According to the report, guns were the instrument of choice in 84 percent of all Black homicide events, whereas guns were used in 74 percent of all homicides, regardless of race.
This report is based on a special collection of state-level data held by the FBI and referred to as the Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR.) The numbers confirm what we have always known about homicide, namely, that it occurs with much greater frequency among the African-American population than within the national population as a whole. In fact, the frequency is four times as great.
Unfortunately, while the SHR contains some interesting data on the some of the specific contexts in which Black homicide occurs, the FBI report may, in fact, significantly understate the number of Black homicides, both for events with and without the use of guns. The VPC says that there were 7,756 Black homicide victims in 2016, of which 6,505 (87%) were killed with guns. The CDC, on the other hand, sets 2016 Black homicide for the entire country at 9,995, with 8,434 (84%) struck down with guns.
How can two public agencies, both important (indeed essential) stakeholders in homicide, come up with numbers that differ by almost 25 percent? After all, a dead body isn’t like a cut or a bruise where the patient may or may not want to tell either the doctors or the cops exactly what produced the wound. And while coroners make mistakes and sometimes data just doesn’t end up in the right place, the gap between FBI and CDC homicide reportage is simply too great to be ignored.
Along with this fundamental discrepancy in the overall numbers themselves, the fact that the VPC report is based on homicides aggregated at the state level leaves us wondering about another major issue, namely, why some inner-city communities appear to have greater-than-average gun homicide numbers and other inner-city communities don’t. For example, the report lists Pennsylvania as the 10th highest state for homicide rates. But in 2016, Philadelphia County had a homicide rate of 18.4, Allegheny County, which is Pittsburgh, had a homicide rate of 8.7. Meanwhile, the median household income in Philadelphia was $40,649, the median income in Pittsburgh was $56,333, and the poverty rate in Philadelphia was 25.3%, in Pittsburgh it was 11.3%.
Do these demographics explain the difference in homicides between the two cities, which between them counted more than half the 2016 Pennsylvania homicides as a whole? Maybe yes, maybe no. The point is that the moment you aggregate state-level data to give us numbers on who killed who, or what kind of weapons were used, or whether the killing took place in the home or in the street, you lose the ability to really understand why certain kinds of people commit gun violence when most people with the same personal backgrounds and living in the same neighborhoods don’t settle violent arguments by picking up a gun.
In Philadelphia, there were more than 23,000 felony assaults committed in 2016. There were 288 murders that year and 1,088 shootings where the victim didn’t die. In other words, when someone wanted to really hurt someone else in the City of Brotherly Love, only six percent of those attacks involved the use of a gun. You can’t tell me that the other 22,000 people who committed a serious assault in Philadelphia couldn’t get their hands on a gun.
The VPC report concludes with this sobering remark: “For the year 2016, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 51 percent of all homicide victims.” What’s even more sobering is the fact that as bad as the numbers are, we still don’t know why those shootings occur.