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Gun Politics Kills People

Behind America’s tragic gun violence crisis – 36,252 deaths in 2015 – lies the gun politics crisis. America’s gun violence landscape has changed greatly in recent decades, but gun politics has remained frozen in time – a deadly example of America’s privatized social policy inertia. In the June 2017 American Journal of Public Health, I discuss striking trends in the nation’s three most populous states holding critical implications for reducing gun fatalities.

I mean striking. In notorious South-Central Los Angeles and Compton, from 1990 to the most recent data as of June 6, 2017, gun murders of youth ages 6-17 fell from 101 to seven, along with a 97 percent decrease from 1990 to 2015 in arrests of youth on homicide charges. L.A.’s 93 percent decline in youth deaths by gun homicide is paralleled by declines of 90 percent in New York City and 70-80 percent in San Diego, Dallas, Austin, and El Paso.

These cities represent the leading edge of an anti-gun revolution among young people concentrated in America’s three biggest states. Over the last 25 years, gun homicide rates among youth and young adults ages 10-24 have fallen by 72 percent in Texas’s large cities, 74 percent in California’s, and 86 percent in New York’s.

Gun homicides per 100,000 population, 2013-15 v. 1990-92

Source: CDC, WISQARS, (2017). Trendlines compare 36-month gun homicide totals among all ages divided by 36-month populations for the three states (statewide) and rest of the country for the two periods. The two periods are chosen to compare the most recent data with the early 1990s peak, though using the mid-1990s or 1980s time periods produces similar relative results.

 

Gun suicide/accident deaths per 100,000 population, 2013-15 v. 1990-92

Source: CDC, WISQARS, (2017). Trendlines compare 36-month gun homicide totals among all ages divided by 36-month populations for the three states (statewide) and rest of the country for the two periods. The two periods are chosen to compare the most recent data with the early 1990s peak, though using the mid-1990s or 1980s time periods produces similar relative results.

Huge reductions in young people dying from guns, a group whose deaths anti-violence groups constantly deplore – isn’t that what everyone wanted? Are academic and public interest groups rushing to analyze and learn how to reinforce these massive reductions in gun killings – not speculative declines, not in Europe or Japan, but real reductions that already happened right here in the United States, from South-Central Los Angeles to New York City’s South Bronx?

Apparently not. Even those who admit a decline in gun killings has occurred display a puzzling reluctance to publicize it, to analyze where it is concentrated or closely examine what might have caused it. Again and again, American interests seem to have difficulty incorporating surprising successes in reducing problems in the policy areas they occupy -- especially improvements not attributable to this or that favored solution; ones that don’t involve “beating the other side.” The silence suggests major declines in gun violence in three large, urban states with very different gun regimes are being ignored because they challenge entrenched political agendas.

Texas presents a challenge to liberal, gun-control advocates, who deplore the state’s “open carry” law allowing guns in public settings. Texas has among the nation’s weakest gun controls (receiving an ”F” grade from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) in addition to high rates of gun ownership. Yet, Texas saw its gun homicide rate among all ages decline by 64 percent, from well above the national average in 1990 to just below it in 2015

Conversely, according to conservative gun-rights enthusiasts, California and New York – which have among the nation’s strongest gun laws (receiving “A-“ grades from the Brady Campaign) and low rates of gun ownership – should be awash in shootings by “bad guys with guns” preying on defenseless citizens. Yet, as both states strengthened gun regulations, they experienced gun homicide rate declines among all ages of 64 percent and 80 percent, respectively, and went from being high-risk to low-risk for gun homicide relative to the national average.

Conventional liberal-conservative politics would hardly predict these three states – which have eight of the nation’s 12 largest cities, a youth and young adult population that grew by 3.5 million since 1990, and nearly half the country’s legal and undocumented immigrants – would show declines in gun homicide rates 2.5 times faster than the rest of the country. Nor that suicide among older white populations would replace homicide victimizing young people and people of color as the new gun crisis. In all three states, overall gun mortality risk among whites now exceeds that of Latinos by large margins.

In Texas, gun suicide is an ongoing epidemic: 45 percent of the state’s gun deaths now are suicides by white people age 30 and older, and 59 percent of Texas’s total suicides are by guns (compared to 37 percent in California and 25 percent in New York). Still, over the last 25 years, gun suicides and accidental/undetermined gun death rates have fallen faster in the three most populous states than elsewhere in the country (see figures). New York’s gun death reduction was largely confined to New York City, and Texas’s consisted of fewer homicides in large cities during the 1990s. By contrast, California’s decline has been broader, encompasses reduced gun deaths across urban and non-urban areas, including suicide, and has been sustained into the 2000s.

Table 1 shows that as of the most recent year available (2015), gun homicide rates were much lower in the large cities of California, New York, and Texas (which together account for nearly half the people living in the nation’s major cities, but just 30 percent of urban gun killings) than in similarly populated cities elsewhere in the United States. While the racial composition of major cities in the three biggest states differs from other cities’ (with much higher proportions of Latino and Asian ethnic groups and lower proportions of African American, white, and other races), their gun murder rates were lower for each race separately as well – especially for African Americans.

Table 1. Gun homicide rate in metropolitan counties with cities of over 1 million population, 2015

Source: Centers for Disease Control, WONDER (2017).

America’s three largest states, particularly their cities, have upended conventional agendas, and, with scientific analysis, hold the dynamic potential to yield bold policy innovations – but only if scientifically analyzed and reinforced. Or would we rather let interest groups and politicians continue to control discussion and argue futilely for another fifty years?

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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