Gun Control, Another Place Where Race Matters

Firearm policy may have different effects on homicide rates of white and black Americans

In 2014, there were 10,945 firearm-related homicide deaths in the United States. Although African Americans constitute only 13.9 percent of the US population, they made up 56.7 percent of these victims. Compared to the media’s high-profile coverage of mass shootings, the everyday killings of African Americans in cities throughout the country receive comparatively little media attention and rarely spark similar outcries for a strengthening of national and state firearm laws. Put in perspective, an average of 17 African Americans are killed in the United States by a firearm every day, a number that is tantamount to 20 Sandy Hook events among the African American population per month. In 2016 alone in Boston, there have been 14 firearm-related homicides; all but 2 of the victims were African American.

The lack of attention paid to the killing of African Americans has led many African Americans to believe that most people do not care about urban violence in general, and about the murder of African Americans in particular. As journalist Lois Beckett wrote in The Guardian: “Black voters think most Americans do not care about urban gun violence, according to a new phone survey…But for them, it’s a critical issue—and a more serious one than police misconduct.” In a report to the United Nations on black gun violence in the United States, Arthur Kamm of the Violence Policy Center argued that the federal government has failed to address “the grossly disproportionate loss of life and injury to African Americans by gunfire…”

The lack of attention to urban violence is also reflected in firearm research itself. While many studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of various firearm laws in reducing overall population homicide rates, the vast majority of these studies do not distinguish between victims of different races/ethnicities. In failing to do so, these studies assume that state-level firearm laws produce homogeneous effects, even while black communities continue to bear the undue burden of firearm violence.

There are reasons to believe that strategies to reduce overall population rates of gun violence may not be effective in addressing the disproportionately high firearm-related homicide rates among African Americans. For example, there is evidence that the use of illegal guns in homicides with black victims may be substantially higher than in homicides with white victims, especially in street crimes in urban areas. Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy, in a meticulous study of street crimes in Los Angeles, documented that most firearm homicides involving black victims were committed with a firearm that was obtained illegally. In a similar study conducted in Chicago, Kamm reported that nearly 98 percent of murder weapons, most of which were used against blacks, were obtained illegally. These findings support earlier analyses of firearms trace data showing that youth homicides in Boston were perpetrated nearly exclusively with illegally obtained weapons. Therefore, most firearm laws—which regulate legal sales of guns—may not be relevant to the reduction of a large proportion of African American homicides. University of Toronto sociologist Jennifer Carlson wrote that “it is naïve and dangerous to believe that gun control policies necessarily help residents of high-crime, gun-rich places like Detroit, where police response times are too long and where gun laws can be so easily used to further criminalize minorities.”

My own research, conducted with colleagues at the Boston University School of Public Health (SPH), has shown a strong connection between levels of household gun ownership and homicide rates at the state level; however, analyses using our data reveal that the firearm homicide rate among African Americans is not significantly related to the prevalence of household gun ownership. Thus, laws that reduce the overall prevalence of firearms might be expected to reduce homicide rates among white Americans, but may not be as effective in reducing homicide rates among African Americans.

Hopefully, all this will change with the June 2016 release of a groundbreaking report by Everytown for Gun Safety, the National Urban League, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns that specifically addresses urban gun violence and explores strategies to confront this problem. Among the approaches suggested are conducting research to understand the precursors of urban gun violence; efforts to reduce the supply of illegal guns; improving public spaces to make them safer; making a greater effort to solve all firearm-related homicides; implementing programs in problem areas that involve at-risk individuals, law enforcement personnel, and street outreach workers; offering employment and support to at-risk youth; and preventing domestic violence criminal offenders from buying or possessing firearms.

The possibility that firearm policies may have a differential effect on homicide rates among white and black Americans is a question that our team of researchers in the new SPH community health sciences department Violence Prevention Research Unit will be investigating in the coming months. We seek to better understand the measures that states and cities can take to reduce firearm-related homicides and to remedy the disproportionate burden of gun violence on the African American community.

Michael Siegel is a Boston University School of Public Health professor of community health sciences.

A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.

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