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The surprising way gun violence is dividing America

Gun enthusiasts inspect FN Herstal handguns during the annual National Rifle Association convention in Dallas in May. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On average, there are 276 gun homicides a week in America. There are 439 gun suicides. All told, there are, on average, nearly 1,200 incidents involving gun violence, every week, in America.

This landscape of gun violence — suicides, homicides, mass shootings, accidents — is not evenly distributed. Instead, it plays out over geographic and political dividing lines — and these may help explain why individual Americans see the issue so differently.

To better understand how the geography of gun violence may affect how Americans think about the issue, The Washington Post analyzed data on gun deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for every county from 2007 and 2016 and the nonpartisan Gun Violence Archive from 2016 to present. (Our full methodology is explained at the bottom of this post.)

A distinct pattern emerged: In Democratic regions of the country, which tend to be cities, people are more likely to be murdered with a gun than they are to shoot themselves to death. In regions of the country won by Republicans, which tend to be rural areas and small towns, the opposite is true — people are more likely to shoot themselves to death than they are to be murdered with a gun.

This pattern, explored in more detail in the graphic below, could partially explain differing partisan views on the issue of gun control, experts say, though they added more analysis would be necessary to prove a direct link. In the most Democratic regions, gun violence is more often committed against another, crimes that probably generate more news coverage and fear. In the most Republican areas, it is more often committed against oneself, suicides that may not attract as much attention.

A public-policy paradox

One of the biggest paradoxes — or, at least, potential paradoxes — about gun violence in America is that more gun violence occurs in Republican areas than Democratic areas.

On average, there were slightly more gun deaths in Republican areas than Democratic-leaning ones in the decade from 2007 to 2016. The disparity in death rates was even greater — 5.7 per 100,000 in Republican-leaning counties, versus 4.7 in Democratic-leaning counties — due to the higher total population in counties won by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Much of the disparity comes from the fact there are so many more suicides than homicides a year, and suicides are so much more prevalent in rural areas and small towns — a phenomenon that has been explored elsewhere.

As the below charts show, Democratic areas (measured by the party that controls the congressional district) are far more likely to experience almost all forms of malicious gun violence than Republican areas. These charts exclude suicides, for which data are not available on a congressional district basis, so it only breaks down the fraction of gun violence that is accidental or confrontational.

In almost all cases, guns kill or injure more children, teens and people in Democratic districts. Mass shootings, which vary widely in number depending how restrictive your definition is, occur more often in Democratic districts.

These Republican and Democratic breakdowns correspond strongly with National Rifle Association ratings. Of the 430 for which grades were available, only 33 (7.7 percent) deviated from the simple Republicans get “A” ratings, Democrats get “F” model.

Gun violence in the Democratic core

Of the 15 largest metropolitan areas in the country, 12 voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Her margin in most exceeded 27 percentage points. The Democratic base, quite simply, experiences higher murder rates.

Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson, who studies urban violence and the factors that cause it, has found that concentrated poverty, inequality and racial segregation are strongly related to higher rates of violent crime in cities. His research has also shown that gun violence is concentrated in specific areas, down to particular city block.

Gun deaths shaped by race in America

Even if people do not experience gun violence firsthand, people tend to react strongly to news of shootings — especially mass shootings — in their city, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“We think in terms of protecting us from the terror of it, from the fear of shooting,” he said.

Political scientists Benjamin Newman, of the University of California at Riverside, and Todd Hartman, of the Sheffield Methods Institute, compared more than 64,000 responses from U.S. adults to mass-shooting data going back to 1966 and found a relationship between geographical proximity to a shooting and increased support for gun control.

“The closer you live to the site of a mass shooting, the more likely you are to feel threatened by gun violence — and the more you support regulating firearms,” they wrote last year.

Support for gun control increased an equivalent amount regardless of whether a person was a Democrat or a Republican, they found. Instead of party affiliation, Newman said in an interview, the size of the change in public opinion is related to how destructive the shooting was, how close it was and how recently it happened.

The relationship between living near a mass shooting and becoming more supportive of gun control is most pronounced with the mass shooting you live near has a higher victim count,” Newman said.

Gun violence in the Republican heartland

As we show above, guns are involved in the deaths of more people, at a higher rate, in Republican-leaning areas than in Democratic ones. Those deaths may escape as much notice, however, as the accidents and suicides that are more prevalent in Republican areas may not attract the same attention as homicides and mass shootings that occur in Democratic areas.

According to a 2017 survey from Pew Research Center, gun owners are more likely to live in rural areas and vote Republican. This rural tilt helps explain why guns kill so many people in Republican-leaning counties.

Like support for the Republican Party, gun suicides increase steadily the farther you get from U.S. cities.

Research has shown gun ownership correlates strongly with gun suicide. The link is so strong that public health researchers consider “the percentage of suicides committed with guns” to be an excellent estimate of gun ownership rates, according to Duke University professor emeritus Philip Cook, whose research about firearms, crime and violence spans four decades.

Mapping the rising tide of suicide deaths across the United States

The presence of a firearm can change what happens when someone experiences a suicidal impulse, Webster said.

“There is enormous differences in lethality of methods. Among all people who attempt suicide, only one in 10 will die [in the attempt]. Conversely, when they use a gun to attempt suicide they’re successful 90 percent of the time.”

But because many perceive suicide as a mental-health issue or a personal decision rather than a matter of public health, suicide has not entered the national gun-control conversation at the same level as homicide.

“Many people, they don’t see suicide as a public problem,” Webster said. “When their loved one, their neighbor, their fellow family member picks up a gun to end his life they don’t become outraged at politicians for easy access to firearms.”

It is possible suicides do not spur more support for gun control because people figure popular gun control measures, such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or tracking purchases, will not affect people who use guns against themselves. Prior analysis by The Post suggests that if the U.S. had a similar level of gun availability as other Western countries, firearm suicides would decline 82 percent and overall suicides would decline 20 to 38 percent.

It is hard to know for sure, however, and relatively few Republicans regard gun violence as a significant issue. According to the Pew polling, only 32 percent of Republicans see gun violence as a “very big” problem and only 24 percent think gun laws should be stricter than they are today.


Unless otherwise noted, figures for firearm homicides and suicides are from the CDC. The most recent figures are for 2016. On the county-level we used 2007-2016 averages to allow for greater detail, but figures for some smaller counties were still suppressed for privacy reasons. We estimated those by comparing state totals and known county-level figures and redistributing the remainder among the unknown counties proportionally based on population. Totals for other gun-violence incidents are from the Gun Violence Archive. Their most recent annual figures are for 2017. On the district level, we used figures from Jan 1, 2016 to the week of May 20, 2018.