Conservative America has far more gun deaths than liberal America, study finds

A comprehensive new study breaks down how firearm deaths correlate to pro- or anti-gun control politics

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 1, 2023 1:22PM (EDT)

Smith & Wesson handguns are seen for sale in a gun store on September 09, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Smith & Wesson handguns are seen for sale in a gun store on September 09, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A horrific recent trend of mass shootings has severely polarized Americans on the topic of firearms. At the center of this heated controversy lies the policy question of gun control: Should the government impose restrictions on firearms and other dangerous weapons to protect the public?

Conservatives turn to the Second Amendment to argue that the Constitution's right to bear arms is sacred; liberals will argue that conservatives are misinterpreting the Second Amendment and that gun control policies have been proven to save lives. The conservative rejoinder to gun control, of course, is that good people with guns can protect the public from bad people with guns.

Yet several recent studies have revealed the exact opposite: In regions dominated by pro-gun politicians, the number of gun deaths is far higher than in areas controlled by pro-gun control politicians.

The pattern of blue regions being safer than red regions held even when analyzing the two most common specific types of gun-related deaths, suicides and homicides.

Foremost among these studies is one produced by the Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University's Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and first reported on in Politico. After analyzing gun violence statistics from America's different cultural regions from 2010 to 2020, the authors found that the areas with the highest rates of gun deaths were consistently those run by Republican politicians. Compared to a national rate of 11.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people, the Deep South had 15.6, Greater Appalachia had 13.5, New France (including the heavily French areas of Louisiana) had 19.8 and the Spanish Caribbean (the heavily Latino areas of Florida) had 11.6. Similarly the First Nation (referring to the heavily indigenous areas of Alaska) had 27.6 (by far the largest of any region studied) and the Far West had 12.2.

This is a stark contrast to those regions in the predominantly Democratic Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states: Yankeedom, consisting of New England, upstate New York and the northern parts of the Midwest, has a rate of 8.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people; the "New Netherlands," which consists of New York City and its metropolitan area, has a rate of 3.8; the Left Coast has 9; Greater Polynesia, or Hawaii, has 3.5; El Norte, or the American Southwest, has 10; and both the Midlands and Tidewater regions, which include the Delaware River valley and Chesapeake Bay areas as well as parts of Virginia, then stretching through the Ohio River Valley and other parts of the Midwest, have rates of 10.9. (It is important to note that some of these regions are much more highly populated than others.) All of those gun death rates are lower than the national average of 11.4 gun deaths per 100,000 people.

"The Deep South is the most deadly of the large regions at 15.6 per 100,000 residents followed by Greater Appalachia at 13.5," explained Colin Woodard, director of the Nationhood Lab, in his Politico article breaking down the significance of the results. "That's triple and quadruple the rate of New Netherlands — the most densely populated part of the continent — which has a rate of 3.8, which is comparable to that of Switzerland. Yankeedom is the next safest at 8.6, which is about half that of Deep South, and Left Coast follows closely behind at 9."

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"Studying these laws are difficult compared to, say, studying the impact of a single law related to child booster seats, or bicycle helmets, or seat belt laws."

The author also noted that the pattern of blue regions being safer than red regions held even when analyzing the two most common specific types of gun-related deaths, suicides and homicides. For gun-related suicides, the New Netherlands was the safest of the highly populated regions (1.4) while Greater Appalachia and the Far West were the deadliest (9.2 and 8.8, respectively); for gun-related homicides, the New Netherlands was the safest highly populated region (2.3) while the Deep South was the least safe highly populated region (6.8).

This is not the first study to suggest a correlation between political leadership that regulates guns and fewer gun-related deaths. In a study published by the journal JAMA Surgery, researchers analyzed two decades worth of gun-related deaths by county by dividing the counties they studied based on how rural or urban they were. They found that during the first decade of the 21st century, "the two most rural county types had statistically more firearm deaths per capita than any other county type, and by the 2010s, the most urban counties—cities—were the safest in terms of intentional firearm death risk."

It is important to note that these statistics often refer to suicides and not homicides. Indeed, the JAMA Surgery study revealed that between 2001 and 2010, America's most rural counties had 25 percent more overall firearm deaths than America's most urban counties and a 54 percent higher rate of gun suicides, but a 50 percent lower rate of gun homicide deaths. They also pointed out that during the 1990s, researchers had not noticed any difference in total intentional firearm deaths between America's most urban and rural counties. This divide only became apparent in the 21st century and appears to be increasing, "with rural counties bearing a great deal more of the burden."

Over the last few decades there have been a number of gun control studies, and over time they have fleshed out a statistical consensus on the efficacy of gun control laws. Studies have established a correlation between lowered violent crime rates and laws like prohibiting firearms to those associated with domestic violence, mandatory waiting periods, forcing those banned from owning firearms to surrender them and imposing child-access prevention laws. Similarly, studies have repeatedly linked drops in suicide rates to child-access prevention laws, minimum age requirements and mandatory waiting periods. Increases in violent crime, tragically, were linked to concealed-carry laws and stand-your-ground laws.

The challenge in analyzing all of this data is that establishing correlation (that two variables are consistently connected to each other in statistics) is very different from establishing causation (that one variable's results caused the other variable's results).

"Studying these laws are difficult compared to say studying the impact of a single law related to child booster seats, or bicycle helmets, or seat belt laws," Dr. Eric Fleegler, who has extensively written about firearms legislation and teaches pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Salon in January. "They're using, 'Hey, we had a change in something, a law, and we look to see if there's a change in something, some outcome fatalities, and we say, 'Yes, these things correlate with each other.' The causation is a much more challenging thing."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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