Opinion: Gun violence plagues America, but tougher policing isn’t the best answer

Community-led efforts to reduce gun violence by reaching the people at highest risk of being a victim or offender are gaining momentum and show promise.

Associated Press

The Issue:

In 2020, almost 25,000 people were murdered in the U.S., nearly 80% of them with a firearm. That year saw homicides rise by 30%, the largest single year increase on record, with almost all the new deaths due to firearms.

This level of gun violence generates enormous—and unevenly distributed—social costs. The burden is particularly severe for young people and young men of color: guns are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the U.S. (including suicides and accidents), and gun homicide is the leading cause of death for young Black men.

Far more Americans die from gun violence than in other developed countries.

The U.S. homicide rate is over seven times greater than those of other industrialized economies. In 2020, guns accounted for almost 80% of U.S. homicides.

The Facts:

America stands out from its peers in its high level of gun violence. The total U.S. homicide rate is, on average, over 7.5 times higher than those of other industrialized economies (see chart). Guns are the key factor behind this disparity: while just 17% of homicides are due to firearms among America’s peers, in the U.S. guns were responsible for 79% of homicides in 2020. In contrast, the rate of non-gun homicides in the U.S. is comparable to, or slightly higher than, that of its peers. 

The number of homicides per 100,000 population in the U.S. dropped substantially over the 1990s, but has been rising rapidly of late. The overall U.S. homicide rate is still about 30% below its early 1990s peak. However, homicide rates since 2019 have approached or surpassed their highest levels ever recorded in some cities across the U.S., including PhiladelphiaMilwaukee, and Austin. And firearm homicides are only a fraction of the full extent of gun violence: for each person fatally assaulted with a gun, roughly five more suffer nonfatal but often life-altering injuries. 

Gun violence in the U.S. is disproportionately concentrated in disadvantaged communities and among young men of color. Across a range of cities, gun violence rates are consistently highest in neighborhoods with high rates of concentrated poverty and historical disinvestment. For example, in 2021, just six of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods accounted for almost one third of the city’s shooting victims despite containing less than 10% of its population.

Just as these neighborhoods are often segregated by race and ethnicity, so, too, does access to basic safety in America exhibit a stark racial disparity. The leading cause of death for non-Hispanic Black men aged 15-24 is homicide, accounting for more deaths among this population than the next nine leading causes combined. Young Black men die of homicide at over 18 times the rate of their non-Hispanic White peers and well above the rate of young Hispanic men (see chart below). 

Efforts to reduce gun violence through gun regulation are the subject of heated controversy and, if anything, the legal environment for owning and carrying guns in the U.S. has grown more permissive in recent years. In 1980, only five states guaranteed concealed carry permits to all qualifying residents or did not require a permit at all.

Despite some tightening of gun restrictions in the 1990s, including the Brady Bill and the federal assault weapons ban (which lapsed in 2004), recent policy has moved in the other direction. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) expanded the right to possess a gun. By the end of 2021, 42 states adopted “right-to-carry” or “permitless carry” laws, and the Court’s recent decision in Bruen is likely to further expand gun carrying outside the home.

Focusing on “better” rather than “more” law enforcement may make a cost-effective difference.

Increasing law enforcement can reduce shootings, but an overreliance on aggressive policing and prisons imposes large collateral costs on the same communities already grappling with gun violence. Focusing on “better” rather than “more” law enforcement may make a cost-effective difference. Multiple studies have credibly shown that increasing police force size reduces violent crime, including homicides, with larger effects in per capita terms for Black victims.

But what police do, in addition to how many of them do it, may be particularly important. The benefits of aggressive strategies that prioritize street stops and low-level arrests are questionable, while the costs they impose are very real. Increased street stops, misdemeanor arrests, and uses of force—usually concentrated in the same communities as shootings themselves—can alter the daily lives of residents, produce trauma and anxiety, reduce students’ academic performance, and lower community trust in policing.

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