Is It Guns?

You may have heard that the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 has exceeded the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Joe Biden in every year from 2000 to 2020. Red states are therefore more violent than blue states and that’s because red states have lax gun laws and lots of guns. That’s the claim, anyway.

According to Colin Woodard, director of the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, writing for Politico, “On a regional basis it’s the southern swath of the country—in cities and rural areas alike—where the rate of deadly gun violence is most acute, regions where Republicans have dominated state governments for decades.”

We are hearing this a lot: that where there are more guns there are more guns violence—and the South is where there is the greatest concentration of guns in the United States. Several aggregate studies purport to show this. I stipulate that the evidence generally supports the correlation. However I dispute the claim that it is the prevalence of guns or lax gun laws that produces high rates of gun violence in the South. A closer analysis taking into account demographics supports my argument.

We should note before getting into it that most gun deaths are suicides. The CDC reports that 54 percent of the 45,222 gun deaths in 2020 were suicides, whereas 43 percent were homicides. The remaining percentages were accidental, police-related (at least some of which were suicide-by-cop), or undetermined. Woodard’s charts show that the region with the most suicides is not the region with the most homicides. We should also note that the 19,384 gun homicides is a subset of the 24,576 homicides perpetrated in 2020. Thus, nearly 79 percent of homicides in 2020 were perpetrated by somebody using a firearm. Most of those homicides involved handguns.

Recently CNN treated its readers to an anecdotal account, making a connection between the mass shooting at a downtown Louisville Old National Bank location, perpetrated by a 25-year-old bank employee named Connor Sturgeon, and Kentucky’s lax gun control laws. In “Kentucky has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the US,” Josh Campbell and colleagues report: “Experts attribute gun violence across the state to relaxed laws in obtaining firearms and the absence of any training requirements to handle a legally purchased gun.”

Who are the experts? The journalists cite CNN contributor Jennifer Mascia, founding staffer at The Trace, a nonprofit outlet (activist group) focused exclusively on gun violence. However, Kentucky is not in the top ten states with the highest rate of homicide in America. This blog will focus instead on those ten states: Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Maryland, Illinois, and Georgia.

Thirteen-year-old Chicago kids encouraged to brandish guns by adult gang member

There is possibly another reason why gun homicides are so high in reds states: the proportion of blacks in the state population in red states is generally much greater than the proportion of blacks in blue states. Fifty-six percent of blacks live in the South. Since blacks commit most murders in the United States—62 percent last year, according to the FBI, despite comprising 13 percent of the population—it follows that these states with a larger proportion of the population comprised by blacks would have higher gun homicide frequencies and rates.

This is not to argue that blacks are naturally more homicidal than whites. This is not a racial thing, if by race we mean grouped genetic differences between demographic categories coded as racial identity; the genetic differences between blacks and whites are trivial. But even if they were significant, where is the evidence that violent tendencies are inherited? (Didn’t Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirsch debunk those claims decades ago?) Rather, blacks are overrepresented in those neighborhoods that are associated with higher rates of murder.

This is not to suggest that the difference in murder rates between neighborhoods is entirely directly linked to structured inequality, either. To be sure, structure plays a major role in the production of social disorganization associated with higher rates of crime and violence. However, culture is a source of attitudes unfavorable to obeying the criminal law. From a materialist standpoint, culture grows out of social structure. Culture is not reducible to that structure. It moreover, in dialectical fashion, shapes social structure. Government policy also plays a role in culture formation, seen for example in the destruction of the black family (see Poor Mothers, Cash Support, and the Custodial State). Overrepresentation of black in serious criminal violence is a product of a subculture that encourages disobedience to authorities and law. (See How Progressive Criminal Justice Policy Puts Black Lives at Risk; America’s Crime Problem and Why Progressives are to Blame; Progressive Panic Over Guns; Demoralization and the Ferguson Effect.)

Bill Maher discusses urban gun violence with Glenn Loury

Here are the ten states mentioned earlier. Except for Illinois and Missouri (the latter status as a southern state is debatable), the states with the highest homicide rates are southern states. First, the percentage of the state population comprised by blacks in parenthesis:

Louisiana: 16.7 per 100,000 (31%)
Missouri: 11.8 (11) 
Mississippi: 10.6 (37)  
Arkansas: 10.6 (15)
South Carolina: 10.5 (25)
Alabama:  9.6 (26)
Tennessee: 9.6 (16)
Maryland: 9.1 (29)
Illinois:  9.1 (14)
Georgia: 8.8 (31)
Homicide rates 2020 (FBI). Demographics 2020 (Census Bureau)

Here are homicide frequencies for each state in 2020, in the order specified above, with race identified. The tables are from the FBI Crime Data Explorer.

The data are very clear. In states with high rates of gun homicide and violence, those lawfully possessing guns, disproportionately whites, are underrepresented in gun violence. The solution to gun violence is not gun control. Indeed, if the presence of guns does not explain variability in homicide rates, and it doesn’t, then gun control measures are not merely unnecessary, but they could make citizens less safe. The solution to the overrepresentation of blacks in serious crime is to address the structural inequality that continues to disorganize these neighborhoods, while also confronting the culture of lawlessness associated with these disorganized conditions. Key to this is the rollback of progressive government and restoring the black family.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.