Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Jan 14th 2011 at 12:00pm UTC

The Geography of Gun Deaths

Terrible tragedies like last week’s mass shootings in Tucson cause us to search for deeper answers. Many were quick to blame America’s divisive and vitriolic political culture for the violence; others portray the shooter as an unhinged, clinically deranged person with his own unfathomable agenda. Arizona has been Ground Zero for the battle over immigration. Were the state’s political and economic travails a contributing factor? There has been some talk about guns, too. Might tighter gun control laws have made a difference?

The map above charts firearm deaths for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Note that these figures include accidental shootings, suicides, even acts of self-defense, as well as crimes. As of 2007, 10.2 out of every 100,000 people were killed by firearms across the United States, but that rate varies dramatically from state to state. In Hawaii, at the low end, it was 2.6 per 100,000; in New York and New Jersey it was 5.0 and 5.2 respectively. At the high end, 21.7 out of every 100,000 residents of the District of Columbia were killed by guns, 20.2 in Louisiana, 18.5 in Mississippi, and 17.8 in Alaska. Arizona ranked eighth nationally, with 15.1 deaths per 100,000.

With these data in hand, I decided to look at the factors associated with gun deaths at the state level. With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, we charted the statistical correlations between firearm deaths and a variety of psychological, economic, social, and political characteristics of states. As usual, I point out that correlation does not imply causation, but simply points to associations between variables.

Let’s start by looking at factors that are sometimes assumed to be associated with gun violence but statistically are not.

It is commonly assumed that mental illness or stress levels trigger gun violence. But that’s not borne out at the state level. We found no statistical association between gun deaths and mental illness or stress levels. We also found no association between gun violence and the proportion of neurotic personalities.

Images of drug-crazed gunmen are a commonplace: Guns and drug abuse are presumed to go together. But, again, that was not the case in our state-level analysis. We found no association between illegal drug use and death from gun violence at the state level.

Some might think gun violence would be higher in states with higher levels of unemployment and higher levels of inequality. But, again, we found no evidence of any such association with either of these variables.

So what are the factors that are associated with firearm deaths at the state level?

Poverty is one. The correlation between death by gun and poverty at the state level is .59.

An economy dominated by working class jobs is another. Having a high percentage of working class jobs is closely associated with firearm deaths (.55).

And, not surprisingly, firearm-related deaths are positively correlated with the rates of high school students that carry weapons on school property (.54).

What about politics? It’s hard to quantify political rhetoric, but we can distinguish blue from red states. Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors – the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

Firearm deaths were far less likely to occur in states with higher levels of college graduates (-.64) and more creative class jobs (-.52).

Gun deaths were also less likely in states with higher levels of economic development (with a correlation of -.32 to economic output) and higher levels of happiness and well-being (-.41).

And for all the terrifying talk about violence-prone immigrants, states with more immigrants have lower levels of gun-related deaths (the correlation between the two being -.34).

And what about gun control? As of July 29 of last year, Arizona became one of only three states that permit its citizens to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Might tighter gun control laws make a difference? Our analysis suggests that they do.

The map overlays the map of firearm deaths above with gun control restrictions by state. It highlights states which have one of three gun control restrictions in place – assault weapons’ bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements.

Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).

While the causes of individual acts of mass violence always differ, our analysis shows fatal gun violence is less likely to occur in richer states with more post-industrial knowledge economies, higher levels of college graduates, and tighter gun laws. Factors like drug use, stress levels, and mental illness are much less significant than might be assumed.

6 Responses to “The Geography of Gun Deaths”

  1. John Obelenus Says:

    I believe that the incidents involving ‘bad’ guys getting shot by ‘good’ guys (self defense, police, etc) should be excluded from the report – The report should indicate the level of illegal gun activity – that’s what causes trouble.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    My understanding is that the percentage of bad guys getting shot by good guys is small. So is the percentage of good guys getting shot by bad guys. Most gun deaths are good guys getting shot by good guys and bad guys getting shot by bad guys. The majority of gun deaths involve family members or acquaintances, accidents and suicides, people without criminal records, all using legal weapons. Drug, crime and gang-related gun homicides generally involve criminals or gang members shooting each other.

    In the ’90’s I consulted with a gang prevention program which took me into neighborhoods with frequent gang violence. People asked me if I was afraid. I told them look at the pictures in the paper, it’s Black kids shooting Black kids, not middle-aged white guys. Absolutely tragic, but not much of a threat to me.

    I think gun control has a place, but it’s not the primary cause of reduced shootings. The more important issue I think is social norms and culture. I suspect states that can pass gun control tend to have a culture that doesn’t support guns as problem solving. They would have lower numbers anyway.

    I grew up in a small town in a hunting family, had my first .22 before I was a teenager, and I’m not anti-gun. Guns were tools and recreation. The NRA was about teaching gun safety, not legalizing assault weapons. Gun control wasn’t the law, it was built into attitudes.

    My high school had gangs in the 1950’s (the idea that they were or are just big city is a misconception.) But gang fights involved fists, clubs, chains & knives — even though most of their families had guns at home. They existed in separate worlds.

    There’s been a culture shift. It’s related to the issues Richard mentions. It occurs to me ironically that the very decline of hunting and diminished number of veterans in the population, in other words of people who know about guns as tools, may be related to the increase in misuse of guns and attitudes about their purpose.

  3. Leo Wilson Says:

    One thing I always miss in these statitical presentations is how many acts of gun violence are perpetrated by our executive branches in relation to how many are by criminals. Any numbers on that? Are such questions even asked?

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    John,

    I’m assuming you’re looking at murder arrests in the FBI tables, which is different from gun deaths. Gun deaths include accidents, suicides and involuntary manslaughter which account for a large number of gun deaths. Over half of gun deaths are suicides. Murder includes non-gun causes.

    I doubt the gun deaths by state tables are fudged. I also doubt Red/Blue voting preferences are responsible, but are related to the same culture differences that I mentioned above. We tend to think of criminal involvement, but lots of gun deaths have to do with activity that otherwise wouldn’t be criminal. The exception is domestic violence, which involves family members rather than stranger crime. Most family murders involve people without other criminal records.

    This leaves aside the greater likelihood of Blacks being arrested and charged, which would take us way into opinion.

  5. Gus Halberg Says:

    Gary Arndt: the criterion of measurement is deaths per 100,000 people.

    Yes, in absolute numbers most firearms deaths occur in urban areas b/c that’s where the people are. But do they occur more frequently per capita?

    For example, gun deaths are rare in RI/MA, but heavy in MS/AR. The first two are more urbanized, the latter are much more rural.

    (Full disclosure: I sort of cherry-picked those states for max effect. But I believe it does show that one must distinguish absolute from relative numbers.)

  6. Michael Wells Says:

    Non-gun but related thoughts. I was just thinking about how much smaller and seemingly more dangerous the world is getting.
    • My wife is in Pune, India where a popular restaurant (the German Bakery) was bombed last year, not to mention the Mumbai hotel attack.
    • I’m going to Patzcuaro, Mexico in February where the police chief was shot a couple of years ago. Along with all of the drug cartel killings nationwide.
    • My daughters’ half-sister is teaching school in Abuja, Nigeria where there was a recent bombing.
    • A young friend is a filmmaker in Thailand, with its random bombings and insurrection.

    These are all over the world in mostly 3rd world countries. It’s not just the US and not just guns.

    Americans travel a lot more and live internationally. Jet travel, Skype, etc. make traveling and living abroad a lot more commonplace. We worry, but we go. And the ride to the airport is still probably the most dangerous part.