When I tell my more liberal friends I am studying “gun culture,” they frequently hear me saying “gun violence,” since their primary association with guns is with violence. Although my interest in guns is actually in the culture that surrounds it rather than violence, I still spend a few days on “gun violence” — firearm-related injury and death — in my Sociology of Guns seminar every semester.
An article we are reading this week – “Firearm Injuries in the United States,” published by 4 authors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is interesting to note – shows that the firearm homicide rate in the United States was 3.66 per 100,000 from 2010-2012.
Taking an aggregate statistic like this, we often hear about how much higher the homicide rate is in the United States than other “similar” countries.
But there is a problem with such population averages: they gloss over important differences between subpopulations within the United States. For example, according to “Firearms Injuries in the United States,” the firearm homicide rate for those 25-34 is more than four times greater than the rate for those 55-64 (8.01 vs. 1.47). The rate for men is 6.13 and for women 1.15. The rate for non-Hispanic Blacks is 14.78 compared to 0.99 for non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Of course, these differences in subpopulations are related also to economics, and economics are closely related to residence in the United States. As I have argued previously, the problem with averages is that no one lives in “The United States.”
The second reading for my class this week is by Andrew Papachristos (with Christopher Wildeman), whose work I like so much and about which I have written a number of times (here and here and here and here). His use of social networks to analyze the concentration of firearms injury and death provides some dramatic and easily understood statistics. For example, in one study he found 85% of all firearms injuries in one Boston community took place within one social network of just 5% of the population (depicted below).
As the CDC researchers observe, “firearm violence is not evenly distributed by geography or among the populations living in these communities. Rather it is highly concentrated in specific ‘hot spot’ locations and often occurs within high-risk social networks” (p. 11). Citation: Papachristos (among others).
This extreme concentration of firearms violence in the United States was discovered by the gun violence newsadvocacy outlet The Trace last summer and they were reminded of it recently by some work done by The Guardian newspaper. According to The Trace, “While President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have emphasized the national murder rate when discussing their strategies for tackling violent crime, The Trace has argued that drilling down to the neighborhood level is the best way to understand gun violence.”
Good to know that The Trace is not going to emphasize the national murder rate anymore, since it is unhelpful in solving the problem of crime, injury, and death.
The Trace continues, “St. Louis, as a prime example, had the highest homicide rate per capita in the United States over the last three years. The homicide rates in several neighborhoods in the city are so high that — as we’ve noted — they exceeded those in Honduras, the deadliest country in the world. In other neighborhoods, especially those that are majority white, the risk is negligible.”
Or, as I wrote almost 2 years ago (April 10, 2015):
The problem with averages is that there is no “United States of America” when it comes to guns, violence, and crime, but many Americas. Some of these Americas – like my neighborhood in Winston-Salem – are more like our first world counterparts in the OECD, and some of them are more like the third world politically, economically, and socially.
This is not to say what The Guardian has done isn’t helpful. It is the sense conveyed that they are discovering something that we haven’t known for some time that is bothersome. I very much like the graphical depictions they provide which show the concentration of violence in the United States.
Not quite the 80/20 principle, but same idea…
Burrowing down to particular neighborhoods, e.g., in St. Louis. The murder capital of the United States, but again, some parts more dangerous than Honduras and some part as safe as Switzerland.