Half the Story.

            Mass shootings grab the headlines and alarm Americans.  So they should, we can all agree.  However, events like the massacres at Buffalo and Uvalde form the tip of the iceberg of American gun violence.  Virtually all (95 percent) of gun homicides involve 1-3 victims; are highly concentrated both geographically and socially, and do not involve “assault-style” weapons.[1]  All this has been well known, if not much discussed in public, for a long time. 

            Homicide rates were alarmingly high from the 1960s through the 1990s.  Then they fell from the 1990s until about 2020.  Since then, they have been rising sharply in some areas. 

One common explanation is to point to the particular stressors of recent times: “the Covid pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and its aftermath, and the polarized political atmosphere.”  None of this is very persuasive.  Covid hit every part of the country; the attendant lock-downs hit much of the country; George Floyd’s murder led to the swift conviction of the perpetrator and an intense debate on policing; and—for all the loose talk of a looming civil war–political polarization hasn’t led to much shooting of political opponents.[2]  The stressors are common, but the violence is localized. 

            “There are several factors behind the concentration of violence.  A major one is poverty.” 

            It has been argued that concentrated poverty reduces “social trust” in the affected community.  Eroded social trust, in turn, “hurts communities’ ability to enforce norms against violent behavior.”  However, enforcing norms against violence usually falls to the police, not community members.[3]  Moreover, the poverty rate for all racial groups hit historic lows in 2019.[4] 

Furthermore, “It is difficult to talk about gun violence without talking about race, because Black Americans are most likely to be the victims of shootings.”  Agreed, but what goes unsaid here is that Black Americans also are most likely to be the perpetrators of shootings. 

Homicide type, by race, 1980–2008.[5]

Victims                                      Offenders

All homicides

Total                White    Black    Other           Total    White    Black      Other

100%               50.3%    47.4%    2.3%           100%   45.3%     52.5%      2.2%

Gun homicide

100%               46.5%    51.4%    2.0%           100%   41.2%     56.9%     1.9%

Drug related

100%               36.9       62.1        1.0              100%   33.2        65.6          1.2

            So, do ALL Black Lives Matter or just some?  Because what we’re doing isn’t working. 

[1] German Lopez and Ashley Wu, “What Everyday Shootings Tell Us About Gun Violence,” NYT, 9 July 2022. 

[2] Although see https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/charlottesville-rally-turns-deadly-one-killed-after-car-strikes-crowd-n792116 and https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/30/us/portland-trump-rally-shooting.html

[3] Unless we’re referring to “Don’t Snitch” T-shirts. 

[4] See: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20the%20share%20of,23.8%25%20of%20the%20poverty%20population

[5] Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith, Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2011). http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf 


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s