The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The ‘red state murder problem’? That’s just a Democratic-driven myth.

Investigators work the scene where multiple people including police officers were shot when a SWAT team attempted to serve a homicide warrant in Philadelphia on Oct. 12. (Matt Rourke/AP)

With Republicans hammering them over rising murder rates, Democrats have come up with a new line of defense: Republicans, they claim, are the ones really responsible for the surge in homicides. The United States, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently declared, has a “red state murder problem.”

No, it doesn’t. The bogus claim comes from a March study by the Democratic think tank Third Way, which purports to show that, contrary to “the right-wing obsession over homicides in Democratic cities: murder rates are far higher in Trump-voting red states than Biden-voting blue states.” According to Third Way, of the top 10 states with the highest per-capita murder rates in 2020, eight (Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas) voted for Donald Trump, while just two (New Mexico and Georgia) voted for Joe Biden. “Republicans seem to do a much better job of talking about stopping crime than stopping crime,” Jim Kessler, an author of the report, told Axios.

One problem with that: In most of these red states, the high murder rates are driven by the lethal violence in their blue cities.

Take Missouri. Yes, it voted for Trump. But it is also home to two of the most dangerous U.S. cities — St. Louis and Kansas City — both of which are run by Democrats. Earlier this year, CBS News did an analysis of the “deadliest U.S. cities” using the latest FBI and other crime data. In 2019, it found, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the nation, with 64.54 murders per 100,000 residents. Kansas City, meanwhile, had the eighth-highest murder rate, with 29.88 murders per 100,000. According to the FBI, the state had about 520 murders in major metropolitan areas that year, 20 in cities outside metropolitan areas, and 28 in nonmetropolitan counties. So, the vast majority of Missouri’s homicides took place in its Democrat-run cities.

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The same is true for Louisiana, which has two of the most lethal Democratic-run cities in the country: Baton Rouge, which in 2019 had the sixth-highest murder rate in the nation with 31.72 murders per 100,000 residents, and New Orleans, which had the seventh-highest rate with 30.67 murders per 100,000. Without those cities, the state’s murder rate would significantly drop.

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That’s not all. Tennessee’s homicide rate was driven up by Democratic-run Memphis, which ranked ninth in the country with 29.21 homicides per 100,000 residents. Also powering the state’s murder rate: then-Democratic-led Chattanooga (No. 29) with 18.15 murders per 100,000 in 2019 (note: the city elected an independent in 2021); Democratic-run Nashville (No. 59) with 12.08 per 100,000; and Democratic-run Knoxville (No. 62) with 11.66 per 100,000.

The same goes for other red states: In Alabama, Democratic-run Birmingham, which ranked third with 50.62 murders per 100,000 citizens, drove up the state murder rate, as did Democratic-run Tuscaloosa (No. 21) with 20.77 per 100,000. Kentucky’s murder rate was run up by its largest city, Democratic-run Louisville, which had the 46th-highest murder rate in 2019, with 13.92 homicides per 100,000 residents. Arkansas’s rate was driven up by Democratic-run Little Rock, the capital and largest city, which had the 24th-highest murder rate with 19.15 homicides per 100,000 residents. Mississippi’s was driven up by the homicides in its Democratic-run capital Jackson, which had a murder rate of 46.5 per 100,000 in 2019.

See a pattern here?

Third Way also claims that 3 of the 5 states with the largest increase in murder rate between 2019 and 2021 were “decidedly rural” red states — “Trump-voting Wyoming at 91.7%, South Dakota at 69%, and Nebraska at 59.1%.” Sounds terrible. Here’s what they left out: According to FBI data, Wyoming had a grand total of 13 murders in 2019, or 2.2 per 100,000 residents, while South Dakota had 17 and Nebraska had 45. So even if Wyoming’s murder rate nearly doubled, it still saw fewer than 30 murders in 2021. What else are these red states missing besides large murder numbers? Large, crime-ridden, Democratic-run cities.

Third Way does not provide city-by-city data for 2020 in its report, perhaps because this would undermine its red state murder narrative. But the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual gathered data on the 2020 murder rates in the 50 largest U.S. cities — 34 of which had Democratic mayors, while 14 were led by Republicans (two were led by independents). “The homicide rate in the blue cities was 15.8 per 100,000, compared to 9.4 per 100,000 in the red cities,” he found.

And in a May report, his Manhattan Institute colleagues Robert VerBruggen and Christos Makridis examined the growth in the homicide rate per capita in the largest U.S. counties between 2019 and 2020 — and then compared the rates in GOP-leaning and Democratic-leaning counties. They found that “counties with higher shares of GOP voters have a much lower homicide death rate and a lower number of deaths in 2020” and “also a lower growth in homicide rates.”

To argue, as Third Way does, that “murder rates are actually higher in Republican, Trump-voting states” — without pointing out that those rates are driven by the slaughter taking place in Democratic-voting blue cities — is intentionally misleading.

The fact is, the red state murder problem is really a red state murder myth.

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