No, big cities aren’t more violent than ever. Small ones are

“Tune into right-wing America’s favorite network, and you’d get the strong impression that leaving your house, especially in any major city, is the equivalent of walking into a war zone,” Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote in 2021. Marcotte was referring to the tendency of Fox News to cover the “nonexistent” crime wave in American cities, in turn propagandizing to its viewers about the notion that violent crime was out of control. Hosts of the Rupert Murdoch-owned news channel rave about “coast-to-coast crime crisis” and “suggested it was impossible to walk ‘down the street in any major liberal city’ without getting murdered.” 

But peculiarly, data hasn’t borne out their claims. Recent research, which was reported on in Salon, found that Republican-controlled parts of America have worse gun violence than Democrat-controlled areas, typically because gun control laws follow a red-blue divide. Indeed, studies performed by everyone from academic researchers to the magazine Newsweek yield the same conclusion: In areas with looser gun control, there is more gun violence.

Now, a recent study in the scientific journal Homicide Studies complicates Fox’s narrative further — revealing that small cities, not big ones like New York, have higher rates of gun violence. The largest cities tended to be the safest. Moreover, the problem with gun violence is most acute in the South.

In cities with 150,000 to 250,000 people, “you have pretty elevated rates of gun violence, and they’re historically elevated as well. Some of the largest cities are the safest.”

Nor are these the only major conclusions from the new paper. Salon spoke with Magic Wade, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois Springfield and author of the paper. Wade shared an abundance of statistics, dividing the 1,300 cities covered by her study into dozens of categories organized by region, demographics, population size, rates of gun-related violence increase and many other factors. Overwhelmingly the trend throughout the United States was the same: Around 2015, rates of firearm homicide rates, fatal firearm injuries and non-fatal firearm injuries (NFIs) started going up, and “2019 marked a turning point in worsening firearm violence across all city size groups.”

The problem is not that one region is violent while others are not, but that the nationwide gun violence epidemic is more severe in some areas than others. “City gun violence rates have increased sharply across most US states,” the study explains.

“You think about a city like New York City, New York today, and how wealthy you need to be to live in the city,” Wade told Salon. “Although there is economic and racial segregation in the largest cities that used to be very, very violent — like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago (America’s three most populous cities) — their rates are so much lower than they used to be, at the peak of their violence.”

Even though those cities’ rates have “crept up” consistent with national trends, “they’re not surpassing that.” Instead Wade’s datasets revealed that “the cities with a million or more people do have lower homicide rates than the cities with half a million to a million.” Once you talk about cities with 150,000 to 250,000 people, “you have pretty elevated rates of gun violence, and they’re historically elevated as well. Some of the largest cities are the safest.”

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All of these trends were worsened during (and likely as a result of) the COVID-19 pandemic. As Wade put it to Salon, the pandemic was “fuel on the fire” of the pre-existing gun violence epidemic.

“First, I find that fatal and non-fatal firearm injuries both spiked dramatically in 2020, but the broader trend toward more cities experiencing heightened gun violence preceded the pandemic as evidence of this, so on and so on,” Wade explained.

Much as survival during the COVID-19 pandemic was strongly correlated with access to health care, Wade’s research finds that communities with superior access to hospitals have lower rates of gun-related deaths. “Proximity to a trauma care facility has been shown to predict recovery rates for NFI victims, and may explain why more gunshot victims survive in larger cities compared to those with populations smaller than a hundred thousand,” Wade pointed out.

Perhaps the most powerful statistics are those involving firearm homicide deaths in every city with a population above 20,000. When analyzing the rates at which those gun violence deaths increased between 2015 and 2021, Wade learned that hundreds of cities have experienced rates of increase of over 100%, a figure she considers “alarming.” Some cities have had increases as high as or higher than 500% within that six-year window, including Dothan, Alabama (population 71,072 — a 500% increase), Grand Junction, Colorado (65,560 — 600%), Commerce City, Colorado (62,418 — 600%), Muncie, Indiana (65,194 — 550%), Starkville, Mississippi (24,360 — 500%), Santa Fe, New Mexico (84,612 — 1200%), Burlington, North Carolina (57,303 — 500%), Lorraine, Ohio (65,211 — 1000%), Greenwood, South Carolina (23,407 — 800%) and Kenosha, Wisconsin (99,986 — 700%).

“A key finding from Wade’s paper is that gun violence isn’t just a challenge for large cities like Chicago, it’s also a challenge, perhaps an even greater one, for smaller cities like Gary, Indiana,” writes Thomas Abt, the Founding Director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction and Senior Fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice. The paper also identified distinct geographic trends.

“Firearm homicide rates are highest and peak violence cities are concentrated in the South, followed by the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions,” the study explains.

Experts disagree on how to resolve the gun violence epidemic, and Wade herself told Salon that individual communities have such highly varying reasons for their gun violence problems that it is important not to over-generalize. Even so, a number of recent gun control studies have established that gun control laws are linked to positive results. There is a correlation between lowered violent crime rates and laws like mandatory waiting periods, prohibiting firearms to those associated with domestic violence, forcing those banned from owning firearms to surrender them and imposing child-access prevention laws. Similarly, studies have repeatedly linked drops in suicide rates to mandatory waiting periods, child-access prevention laws and minimum age requirements. States with concealed-carry laws and stand-your ground laws, by contrast, have increased rates of violent crime.

In an email to Salon, Wade also advocated for the aforementioned gun control policies. She also suggested safe storage laws, expanded background checks, mental health record reporting, magazine capacity limits (“to reduce the number of casualties in massacre-style shootings”), imposing stiffer penalties for modifying/using handguns with extended magazines, assault rifle purchasing and transfer bans, requiring people to report stolen guns and “hold[ing] straw purchasers accountable.”

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