As gun violence continues to fuel violent crime across the country, some conservative politicians not only refuse to support common-sense gun violence prevention measures, but also actively roll back gun laws that contribute to make our communities safer. Many of these same elected officials continue to perpetuate the narrative that gun violence is only a problem in Democratic-run urban cities, and the media distorts the public’s perspective by focusing heavily on gun violence in cities. like Chicago. The truth, however, is that rural communities, especially in red states, increasingly face levels of gun violence that match or exceed urban areas.
Rural communities experience high rates of gun violence
- From 2016 to 2020, the two U.S. counties with the most firearm homicides per capita were rural:* (see Figure 1)
- Phillips County, Arkansas: 55.45 age-adjusted homicides per 100,000 population
- Lowndes County, Alabama: 48.36 age-adjusted homicides per 100,000 population**
- From 2016 to 2020, 13 of the 20 U.S. counties with the most firearm homicides per capita were rural: (see Figure 1)
- 80% of those 20 counties are in states that received an “F” grade for their weak gun laws, according to the Giffords Law Center’s 2021 Annual State Scorecard Rankings to Prevent Gun Violence.
- In 2020, the total gun death rate in rural communities – adjusted for age per 100,000 population – was 40% higher than in major metropolitan areas.
Media attention on major cities distorts the reality of gun violence in the United States
- Despite negative media attention, many large cities are proportionally safer from gun violence than their rural counterparts:
- Chicago is in Cook County, which ranks 79th in firearm homicide rates.
- Philadelphia County ranks 38th in firearm homicide rates.
- The five counties that encompass New York City rank between 360th and 521st for firearm homicide rates:
- New York County (Manhattan) ranks 521st.
- Kings County (Brooklyn) ranks 404th.
- Bronx County (Bronx) ranks 360th.
- Richmond County (Staten Island) ranks 488th.
- Queens County (Queens) ranks 502nd.
- Los Angeles County ranks 316th in firearm homicide rates.
Southern and Midwestern states with lax gun laws and large rural populations have contributed to an increase in gun homicides
- Southern and Midwestern states, such as Arizona, Arkansas, and Missouri, contributed significantly to the more than 100x relative increase in firearm homicide rates from 2014 to 2019:
- Rural areas of Arizona and North Carolina have overtaken their large metropolitan counterparts; in fact, firearm homicide rates in rural Arizona were 14% higher than in the state’s major metropolitan areas from 2016 to 2020. (see Figure 2)
- From 2016 to 2020, firearm homicide rates in rural North Carolina were 76% higher than in major North Carolina metropolitan areas. (see figure 3)
- According to Everytown for Gun Safety, many Southern states where gun violence has increased have weaker gun laws:
- Among the 50 states, Arizona ranks 43rd in the strength of gun safety law and had about 1.5 times more gun-related homicides than the average state in 2014 to 2019.
- Arkansas ranks 47th and had about 1.6 times more gun-related homicides than the average state from 2014 to 2019.
- Missouri ranks 41st and had about 1.6 times more gun-related homicides than the average state from 2014 to 2019.
- North Carolina ranks 21st and had about 1.25 times more gun-related homicides than the average state from 2014 to 2019.
Rates of gun ownership among rural citizens are higher than they are in urban areas, which may lead to an increase in gun violence
Rural gun violence places greater emphasis on local law enforcement and prosecutors
- A report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that many rural police officers feel they lack the resources to handle current issues such as gun violence:
- Many rural police chiefs have noted that, unlike large departments, the lack of dedicated or qualified grant writers hurts their funding prospects; specifically, the length and requirements of the application were cited as major concerns.
- Rural prosecutors and law enforcement have expressed difficulty in dealing with an increase in gun-related deaths.
Gun violence continues to harm the lives of citizens across the country, but our political leaders have the ability to prevent the senseless loss of life. Unfortunately, pro-gun political leaders have failed to adopt common-sense gun violence prevention measures that can save lives and have actively facilitated guns falling into the wrong hands. It’s easy for those same leaders and the media to criticize urban Democratic-run counties, but the truth is that rural communities in several Republican-run states have experienced a level of gun homicides that matches or exceeds that of their urban neighbours. It’s time for political leaders to show their constituents that their lives matter and push for sensible gun laws.
*Author’s note: This analysis uses the Office of Management and Budget definition of “rural” and “urban”.
**Authors’ note: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adjusting rates for age ensures that differences in incidence or death from year to year, or from one geographical area to another, are not due to differences in the age distribution of the populations being compared.