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We have a murder problem in America — especially in red states


For the last two years, the nation has been awash in news accounts about soaring violent crime and murder in cities and states run by Democrats. That narrative is ubiquitous, particularly in conservative media, where Democratic mayors are routinely called out and excoriated for turning a blind eye to crime. That story is half right and half — to be charitable — lazy and wrong.

Let’s dispatch with the part that is correct. We have a murder problem in America, with homicides up sharply in recent years reversing long-term trends. In addition, many cities with Democratic mayors and governors have experienced dramatic murder spikes.

Now, for the rest of the story. In a report Third Way recently released, we found that murder was much more prevalent in red states than blue states. That’s right. In 2020, homicide rates were a stunning 40 percent higher in the 25 states that former President Donald Trump won compared to the 25 won by current President Joe Biden. Of the 10 states with the highest 2020 per capita murder rates in America, eight of them not only voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, they voted Republican in every presidential election this century.

Mississippi — a state that neither conjures up weak on crime images nor Democratic officeholders — topped the charts with a 2020 murder rate twice that of blue Illinois, thrice that of bluer California, and four times that of bluest New York. The red states of Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama and Missouri rounded out the top five and each had murder rates at least six times Massachusetts, four times New Jersey and just shy of twice that of Michigan. These blue states are home to the “crime-is-out-of-control” cities you read about daily — Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Newark and Detroit. They generate the headlines, the outrage and the political backlash.

Yet, media coverage is essentially mum about Lexington, Kentucky, which has set back-to-back murder records, has a homicide rate twice that of New York City and has a Republican mayor. Tulsa and Oklahoma City have Republican mayors, a Republican governor and murder rates that dwarf that of Los Angeles. Jacksonville was the murder capital of Florida in 2020 with its Republican mayor, governor and a stratospheric homicide rate that if it were matched in New York City would’ve added more than 1,000 murders that year.

And to top it off, the homicide rate in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) San Francisco was half that of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County and one with a Republican mayor — with overwhelming Trump support and not a whiff of flirtation with defund the police movements. In fact, the murder capital of California for six years running is sleepy Kern County130 miles from Los Angeles and 306 miles from San Francisco, the two California locales most often associated with the crime-is-out-of-control national headlines that have dominated U.S. crime  and political coverage.

The causes for crime and murder are complicated and intersectional and so is its relationship to political party. Since four out of five murders are by firearms, higher homicide rates tend to be in places with extensive gun ownership. Meanwhile, firearms purchases have exploded with Americans purchasing an unprecedented 80 million guns in the last two years. Add to that gun owning households are twice as likely to be Republicans. Taken together, this could conceivably explain some of the bias toward more lethal crime in red states.

Mostly, however, crime is ripe for another type of bias: toward demagoguery. The Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson were punctuated with GOP attacks labeling her soft on crime despite endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and nation’s police chiefs. Ironically, some of the most outrageous attacks came from Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who represent states with murder rates among the worst in the nation. 

This underscores that there is rarely a national crime discussion in America that is civil, inquisitive and holistic. And that is what makes the media slant that focuses almost exclusively on urban blue state crime as inexplicable and frustrating as it is lazy and off.

If the yardstick is homicide, Republicans do a far better job of talking about stopping crime than actually stopping it — and it seems much of the press seems to buy it.

Jim Kessler is executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank. Follow him on Twitter: @thirdwaykessler

Tags blue state Crime Homicide Jim Kessler Joe Biden Ketanji Brown Jackson Kevin McCarthy Murder Nancy Pelosi RedState Tom Cotton Violence

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