America has a gun violence problem. But it's a problem that disproportionately afflicts black Americans — to the point that many of these communities have homicide rates that are closer to more violent countries like Mexico than the rest of the US.
A new analysis of FBI data by the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center finds that the black homicide rate in 2013 (the most recent year with available data) was 16.91 per 100,000 people. In comparison, the overall national homicide rate was 4.27 per 100,000 and the white homicide rate was 2.54 per 100,000. This includes all homicides, not just gun deaths.
To put this in perspective, other developed countries like Canada, Germany, the UK, and Japan had homicide rates around or below one per 100,000 in 2013. The white homicide rate in the US tops even those countries' figures, but the black homicide rate is tremendously higher.
In fact, the black homicide rate is more in line with the reported rates for developing countries like Mexico (19 per 100,000), Panama (17 per 100,000), and Uganda (11 per 100,000).
What's to blame for the alarming black homicide rate? The Violence Policy Center, which favors more restrictive gun laws, focused on firearms: "For homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 84 percent of black victims (4,960 out of 5,891) were shot and killed with guns. Of these, 73 percent (3,609 victims) were killed with handguns. … In comparison, 65 percent of white victims and 74 percent of victims of all races were killed with guns."
The report concluded, "For black victims of homicide, like all victims of homicide, guns — usually handguns — are far and away the number-one murder tool. Successful efforts to reduce America’s black homicide toll, like America’s homicide toll as a whole, must put a focus on reducing access and exposure to firearms."
There are, of course, other factors behind these high levels of homicides, ranging from socioeconomic variables to urbanization to alcohol consumption. (We'll get to those later.) But the research shows that guns — and access to them — do play a big factor.
America's unusual levels of gun ownership mean more gun violence
The US has extraordinarily high levels of gun ownership, topping all other countries in the world. As a result, America suffers much more gun violence than other developed countries, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:
The research on this point is clear: When there are more guns and gun owners, there are generally far more gun deaths, particularly after controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic variables and urbanization. Studies have found this to be true again and again — for homicides, suicides, domestic violence, and violence against police.
Here's one chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers, showing the correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:
A more recent study from 2013, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, reached similar conclusions: After controlling for multiple variables, the study found that a 1 percent increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate at the state level.
This holds up around the world. As Vox's Zack Beauchamp explained, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley's Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that's driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
"A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar," Zimring and Hawkins wrote. "A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London."
The US appears to have more lethal violence — and that's driven in large part by the prevalence of guns
This is, in many ways, intuitive: The prevalence of guns can cause petty arguments and conflicts to escalate into deadly encounters. People in every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it's much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument, pull out a gun, and kill someone.
These studies aren't the only ones to reach similar conclusions. Multiple reviews of the research, including the Harvard Injury Control Research Center's aggregation of the evidence, have consistently found a correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths after controlling for other factors. And various studies have indicated that restricting access to firearms reduces gun deaths.
For example, a 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
If America doesn't want to do anything about guns, there are some other options
Despite all of this research, policymakers, particularly at the federal level, have opted not to pass comprehensive gun laws. To this day, America has much weaker gun laws than other developed nations. There's no sign of that changing anytime soon.
So what else can be done?
Guns, after all, are one factor, but not the only factor. The fact that researchers need to control for different variables, from urbanization to alcohol consumption, in gun studies is indicative of this: If guns were the single dominant issue when it came to violence, major statistical controls wouldn't be necessary.
I asked researchers about other policy ideas for reducing violence. Here are some of the ideas they put forward (which you can read about in much more detail here):
- Stricter alcohol policies: Studies suggest that raising the alcohol tax, limiting the number of alcohol outlets, and even revoking repeat offenders' right to drink can cut back on violence.
- Hot-spot policing: Deploying police in blocks and neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence, particularly if done in cooperation with the local community, can significantly reduce crime without displacing it to other areas and generally to positive reactions from locals.
- Focused deterrence policing: This strategy hones in on specific community problems (drugs, violence, and so on), and works with community groups, such as churches and schools, to get the individuals and groups who drive most of that activity to stop. It's partly credited with the "Boston miracle," in which the city saw violent crime drop 79 percent in the 1990s. And other research found that it can work in other places.
- Raise the age or grade for dropping out of school: A study published in the American Economic Journal analyzed different cohorts of kids, finding that the group with higher dropout rates was more likely to commit crime. The authors of the study said its findings indicate that raising the dropout age — from 16 to 18, for example, — or forcing students to complete a certain amount of grades before they can drop out could reduce crime.
- Behavioral intervention programs: One such program, Youth Guidance's Becoming A Man, targets youth who are at risk of getting into violent encounters and teaches them how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Randomized control trials by the University of Chicago Crime Lab found the program reduced violent crime arrests by 30 to 50 percent during the time of the intervention.
- Eliminate blighted housing: A 2015 study found that fixing up abandoned and vacant buildings in Philadelphia led to significant drops in overall crimes, total assaults, gun assaults, and nuisance crimes. There was no evidence that crime shifted to other areas, although there were signs that drug dealing, drug possession, and property crimes went up around remediated buildings. Still, net gains overall.
As the variety and depth of these ideas may suggest, there are a lot of things that policymakers could be doing to reduce America's extraordinary levels of violence — even if they refuse to enact new gun control measures.
Now, no policy will ever stop all gun crime — there will always be a black market for guns, and humans have been killing each other since they began to exist. But these policy ideas, along with gun control, could put an end to a horrible toll of violence that's killing thousands of Americans, especially in black communities, every year.