Gun violence shatters lives among its victims, and leaves society at large shaking its head and wringing its hands.
Criminal-justice experts and analysts, however, recognize and understand a key concept and condition that rarely makes the news but is essential to making progress: the law of crime concentration.
Half of the gun deaths in the U.S. in 2015 occurred in just 127 cities. Moreover, gun violence is further concentrated in neighborhood areas within those cities that comprise only about 1,200 census tracts, which cover roughly 1,600 square miles. To properly frame the reference of the minuscule nature of those numbers, our country has 73,057 census tracts and 3.8 million square miles.
Though those neighborhoods contain only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, 26 percent of the nation’s gun homicides happened within their local confines.
Now you see why gun-crime statistics by state are utterly deceiving. Any averaging that lumps large numbers of counties with zero gun deaths together with a very few urban counties with very high gun homicides produces an idiotic and useless result. Outliers that are way out of scale always skew averages into meaninglessness.
Gun-crime “solutions” based on state averages are therefore doomed to fail; they seek to solve illusory problems.
Consider Missouri and Arkansas, for instance. The per-adult gun ownership rate in Arkansas is twice that of Missouri, but the firearm murder rate in Missouri is 50 percent higher than Arkansas. Both states rank high in gun death rates, the problem isn’t statewide in either, as FBI murder data demonstrate.
In 2016, Arkansas had 216 murders, for a rate of 7.2 per 100,000 population. But only 25 of those murders occurred in nonmetropolitan areas. For those 55 counties, the murder rate was half the cities’ rate.
In Missouri, the contrast is even starker: The metro homicide rate was three times the non-metro rate. Of Missouri’s 537 murders, 474 occurred in its eight metropolitan areas. Of Missouri’s total gun homicides, one-third can be traced to neighborhoods in either St. Louis or Kansas City.
That’s not a Show Me State irregularity; it’s a national reality.
Moving up the map, 31 of Iowa’s 99 counties belong to metropolitan areas. In all of the 68 nonmetro counties, there were only 8 murders in 2016. The murder rate in St. Louis (population 319,924) is 50 times more than in nonmetro Iowa (population 681,181).
Trying to approach those two population sets with a one-size-fits-all crime prevention strategy is absurdity beyond description. What our concentrated crime problem is crying out for is a common-sense strategy that treats communities according to their situations, and applies crime-prevention resources and practices accordingly.
Some city neighborhoods need police presence, loitering policies, curfews and other measures ratcheted up radically until improvement is seen. Many, many other small towns and neighborhoods across the nation don’t need anything at all—certainly no new gun laws.
In reviewing urban areas where concentrations of gun crime are most rampant and produce the most deaths, some insightful political observations arise.
The top five cities with the highest gun death rates are New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore and Oakland. The top five cities with the highest non-fatal gun crime rates feature some overlap: St. Louis, Memphis, Oakland, Detroit and Pittsburgh.
If we expand each list to the top 20 cities, and cross-reference them, 14 cities appear on both the gun death and non-fatal shooting lists. Of those 14 cities that were in both top 20 gun crime categories, Hillary Clinton carried every single one in the 2016 election, with landslides (more than 60 percent) in nine of the 14.
In some of the deadliest gun crime cities, such as St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore, Trump fared worst of all, getting only 15.9, 14.7 and 10.7 percent of the vote respectively.
How silly it would be for Democrats to limit their campaign strategy for 2020 in the metro areas where their candidate won hands-down. A strategist suggesting more ad spending in Baltimore would be a laughingstock. To change things, obviously the party must address the many suburbs, small cities and rural counties where Clinton lost.
How silly it is, likewise, to propose and devise gun crime solutions for the vast majority of people and places in the U.S. where there is no gun violence problem.
To effect change and improvement, we must address those small, narrowly defined areas where gun crime is off the charts.
Politicians can sound noble and statesmanlike standing up and calling on Congress for a national assault weapon ban. Meanwhile, nightly handgun shootings take a deadly toll on constituents trapped in select census tract neighborhoods—so easily identifiable, so statistically predictable, so conveniently forgettable.
Back in 1914, opposing troops in World War I along no-man’s land called a Christmas truce and put down their weapons to celebrate the holiday. Maybe mayors in major cities ought to coordinate a plea for a gun crime truce this Christmas.
No shootings, for just one day.
It might fail miserably. No harm in trying, though. The longest journey always starts with a single step.