In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the use of epidemiological language to characterize the problem of gun violence in the United States. Words like “plague” or “epidemic” are among the most commonly used, and sometimes the comparison goes beyond mere metaphor: physicians who regularly witness the bloody consequences of gun violence have proposed approaching gun violence as a medical or public health issue: through research, education, and preventative measures. As researchers concerned with the level of gun violence in America, this epidemiological framework of gun violence and the research-based approach to “treating” it deeply resonates with us.
Of course, there is presently an actual pandemic, COVID-19, that has brought this country to its knees, with no signs thus far of being close to contained. Given the discouraging trends we have been seeing in the media this year with regards to the increasing rates of both gun violence and COVID-19 infections and deaths, we felt it would be an interesting experiment to do a state-by-state comparison of the death rate due to gun violence with the death rate due to COVID-19. By consolidating the data we were then able to see which states are safest and which are the deadliest with respect to both. With gun violence, specifically, we also sought to understand the factors most closely associated with the highest rates of deaths from gun violence, and what we found adds evidence and support for the argument that gun control laws save lives.
The deadliest states and the safest states in the U.S.
Using statistics retrieved from various government agencies and independent research organizations in 2018, we first analyzed the data for firearm mortality rates state by state and ranked the 50 states from safest to most dangerous in terms of fatal gun violence. The top five safest states, in descending order, are Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and New Jersey. The five least safe states for gun violence, also in descending order starting with most dangerous, are Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri and Wyoming (they are tied), and Louisiana.
We then did the same state-by-state analysis for COVID-19 mortality rates, using data that was current as of July 15, 2020. The five safest states for COVID-19 deaths, once again in descending order, are: Hawaii, Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, and Oregon. The five least safe states are New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and D.C.
Finally, we put together a third and comprehensive list that consolidated the rate of deaths from both gun violence and COVID-19, which allowed us to categorize four groups of states: states that have a high rate of deaths from both gun violence deaths and COVID-19 (“the deadly states”); states with a high rate of gun violence deaths but a low rate of COVID-19 deaths; states with a low rate of gun violence deaths but a high rate of COVID-19 deaths; and states with a low rate of both gun-related deaths and COVID-19 deaths (“the safest states”).
These are the top five deadly states (i.e., states where people have the highest chances of dying from both gun violence and the coronavirus), in descending order starting with most dangerous:
- New Mexico
And these are the top five safest states — i.e, states where people have the lowest chances of dying from both gun violence and COVID-19, in descending order starting with safest.
Factors that correlate with the rate of gun deaths
While it was fascinating to see which states had the highest and lowest likelihoods of people dying from both gun violence and COVID-19, at the heart of our research was the motivation to understand the variables most closely associated with firearm mortality rates. Using a form of data analysis known as stepwise multiple regression, we therefore studied 11 factors that might be related to the rate of gun-related deaths in each state: population, median income, ideological leaning (i.e. conservative, moderate, or liberal), political leaning (i.e. Republican, Democrat, or independent), urban population, unemployment rates, number of registered guns, number of gun laws, and number of people with mental illnesses, number of veterans, and the percentage of college-educated adults. We did not do this for COVID-19 because being such a new problem limited, so far, to the year 2020, there are too many variables that are in constant, rapid flux at this time whereas the variables we looked at for gun violence deaths (e.g. population, median income, number of gun laws) have been present for years and are relatively stable.
We found that most of the factors were not significantly related, and some of these results were surprising. For example, a higher number of registered guns was not correlated with the overall rate of firearm deaths. The number of people with mental illnesses was also not found to have a significant impact, which was surprising given that mental health is frequently cited as being one of the core factors behind gun violence. This is not to say, of course, that these factors have absolutely no relevance to any gun violence at all. A previous study, for instance, found that a higher rate of gun ownership was correlated specifically with a higher rate of domestic violence-related homicide. With regards to mental health, a different study found that improving mental and behavioral health treatment capacity could modestly reduce the rate of suicides committed with guns.
In our own study, only three of the variables were significantly correlated with the rate of gun-related deaths:
- Unemployment rates: The higher the unemployment rate, the higher the gun-related death rate.
- Ideological leaning: States that are more conservative than liberal had a greater likelihood of a higher gun-related death rate.
- Number of gun laws: The more active gun control laws that were in a state, the lower the firearm mortality rate was likely to be.
Of these three factors, the number of gun laws had the strongest correlation, meaning that the more gun control laws were active in a state, the lower its rate of gun violence deaths was likely to be.
Gun control laws work at reducing gun violence
Regardless of political persuasion, gun policy should be driven by evidence. While it would be beyond the scope of this article to go into a lengthy discussion of the Second Amendment, our research adds further evidence that policy makes a difference and that gun control laws work. Further research can help us better understand which kinds of specific policies are most effective in reducing gun violence and which, conversely, result in higher rates of it, though there is already evidence that supports the effectiveness of certain specific measures such as requiring stricter background checks and banning the sale of guns to those previously convicted of domestic violence. Meanwhile, laws that relax restrictions such as those that permit concealed carry or that repeal existing gun control laws have been found to increase firearm homicides.
There are two plagues currently ravaging our nation. One of them, COVID-19, is still very new. The other plague, gun-related deaths, has been a feature of American life for a long time. And the data clearly show that gun control laws work at reducing gun violence.
Samir Chatterjee is the Fletcher Jones Chair of Technology Design & Management at CGU’s Center for Information Systems & Technology (CISAT). He is also considered a leading technology designer and strategist for 21st-century health care.
David E. Drew holds the Joseph B. Platt Chair in the Management of Technology at Claremont Graduate University. His principal appointment is in the School of Educational Studies, where his teaching focuses on data analytics, statistical analysis, and model building. For 10 years Drew served as dean of the School of Educational Studies.
Acknowledgement: Prof (s). Chatterjee and Drew would like to acknowledge graduate students Yubo Fu, Md Moniruzzaman and Vinh Tran for helping with the data.