It never fails. Start any online conversation about the issue of gun violence, and it won’t take five minutes before someone rushes in to ask, “What about Chicago?” That's because right-wing media has long been selling the idea that America’s cities are hellscapes, overrun with violent drug gangs, gunning people down by the score. That is, those cities that were not burned to the ground by violent Black Lives Matter and Antifa mobs, which is also a thing that right-wing media pushes and right-wing social media constantly repeats. Chicago in particular is the go-to case for anyone who is in a hurry to tell you that “gun control doesn’t work.”
Gun violence is so often associated with cities that the term “urban gun violence” is often passed off as the only kind there is. But the truth is that cities are much safer than rural areas when it comes to gun violence, and the states pro-gun fanatics like to finger are actually much safer than the rural states where guns are more common.
It’s not the cities that are hotspots for either gun violence in general, or for mass shootings. Looking at the school shootings that have happened since Columbine:
- Parkland, Florida, has a population of 33,000.
- Uvalde, Texas: 16,122.
- Newtown, Connecticut: 27,173.
- Blacksburg, Virginia—scene of the nation’s largest school shooting—is a relative goliath at 44,395.
- Littleton, Colorado, home to Columbine, was about 33,000.
Gun violence isn’t just killing kids in large numbers. It’s killing them specifically in the kinds of rural areas where firearm mortality is worst.
The firearm mortality in New York state is 5.3 people per 100,000. Even that number is very high compared to nations around the world. Still, it’s lower than the 10.8 rate in Illinois. So that claim about Chicago is … completely wrong. Not when states like Louisiana and Mississippi have death rates from guns over 25. Just to hammer that home, the rate of firearm mortality in these states is five times that in New York and over twice that of Illinois. No wonder these are considered “deep red states.”
Why would that be? Because the rate of gun ownership in New York is 20%, while in both Louisiana and Mississippi, the number is greater than 50%. Illinois is in the middle with 28%.
More guns, more deaths by gun.
Yes, it’s easy to point at cities like Chicago and make a weak argument about gun control laws not working, but the fact is that Chicago is directly adjacent to Indiana. What’s in those little blocks just across the line? Gun shops. Lots of them. Proving nothing more than if you make it dead simple to get deadly weapons people will still end up … dead. New York, where state law is more comprehensive and neighboring states are less willing to make a quick profit from selling murder machines to out-of-state residents, has fewer guns and many fewer deaths.
But even in Illinois, Chicago is not the hotspot for gun deaths. The numbers out of Chicago are waved around by pro-gun forces because: 1) That false perception that it has some very tough restrictions, and 2) the pervasive idea that it’s a hotbed of gang violence (an idea reinforced not just by right-wing media but by the genuinely pervasive cop TV that fills broadcast airwaves). But the truth is the only thing that makes Chicago seem to stand out is that it’s large. With 9.5 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area, it contains by far the greatest bulk of Illinois’ 12.7 million population.
Even so, notorious Cook County has a rate of 13 deaths per 100,000—that’s higher than the state average, but a lot less than smaller counties like Vermillion, which tops 15. Or the downstate county of St. Clair that touches 20. Tiny Massic county, with a total population of 14,041 and a statue of Superman in its capital city of Metropolis, has a rate of firearm mortality that is well above that of Chicago.
As Bloomberg reports, the situation with Chicago and the rest of Illinois is far from unique. In fact, when it comes to a measure of death from “external causes” (a measure that excludes factors such as accidental self-poisoning and health risks associated with weight), “the more urban your surroundings, the less danger you face.” In some cities, the surrounding ring of suburban counties was less dangerous than the core urban county. However, the overall risk of death from external causes is “three times higher in rural and small-town America than in the country’s largest city.”
Why are cities so associated with violent crime? Part of it is that movies and television shows set in cities often focus on stories about crime. Part of it is that when violence does occur in a dense, urban area, it’s more likely to be witnessed by a number of people.
Here are two additional reasons: The kind of gun violence most likely to affect people in rural and urban areas is different. For people in urban areas, homicide is the biggest threat, with a rate of just under 6 per 100,000. That is genuinely higher than the rate of homicides in rural areas. For rural areas, it’s suicide that is the much larger threat, averaging 11 per 100,000 people.
There’s one more reason cities are so tied to gun violence in the mind of much of the public: Racism. There’s a reason that “urban” slips into the conversation so often when Republicans are talking about gun violence. It not only reassures their rural base that they have nothing to worry about, but also points a finger at the constantly referenced “Black on Black” crime. And, of course, some Republicans are not so subtle.
As Rebekah Sager reported on Monday, Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters admitted that there was a problem with gun violence in America, but he knew exactly where to find it. “It’s people in Chicago and St. Louis shooting each other,” said Masters, “very often, Black people, frankly.”
Masters was right about one thing: At 23.9 per 100,000, Missouri has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the nation. However, his explanation falls a bit short when looking at the state with the third-highest rate of firearm mortality overall: Wyoming. Wyoming has a rate of 25.9 gun deaths per 100,000. it also has a population that is 92% white. A resident of Caspar, Wyoming, is more likely to die from gun violence than a resident of Chicago. In fact, so is a resident of Phoenix, Arizona. Which seems like something that Masters should know.
Republicans don’t just want to “other” the people of cities, they want to other the victims of gun violence, too. That way they can protect what matters most to them … gun money.