A first of its kind study published in late May in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open concluded that community-level “social vulnerability” factors like poverty, unemployment, crowded housing, and minority status were much more likely than “permissive” gun control laws to be strongly associated with a high gun-violence death rate among youth. “Our results suggest that legislation alone, although important, will not address the problem of gun violence in the US and needs to be accompanied by genuine, deep, and long-term investment in historically marginalized communities to reduce inequities.”
The study examined the relative impact of such “community-level factors” and state-level gun laws on violent (assault-related) firearm deaths to determine “whether the strength of state-level gun laws has differential consequences for the rate of firearm-related violence in communities with different levels of social vulnerability and disadvantage.”
Researchers began with Gun Violence Archive data (which includes “the precise locations” of firearm-related deaths) and identified “assault-related firearm deaths” among youths aged 10 to 19 years in the United States, occurring between January 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022. Incidents without an identifiable location and suicides were excluded, resulting in a study group of 5,813 youths. Overall, the mean age of the study group was just over 17 years, and over 85% were male.
Study authors then matched incident locations with socioeconomic and population characteristics of discrete geographic regions – “social vulnerability indices” (SVIs) – and the rating (A, B, C, D, or F) the state’s gun control laws received from the Giffords Law Center. SVIs, as developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rank the relative vulnerability of every U.S. Census tract according to socioeconomic status, household composition and disability, racial and ethnic minority status and language, and housing type and transportation.
The results revealed that higher levels of social vulnerability were associated with higher gun-violence death rates. The total number of assault-related firearm deaths for youths in the low SVI cohort was 309 (633 in the moderate SVI cohort), compared to 3,565 in the very high SVI cohort. Calculated as death rates per 100,000 person-years, the rate for the low SVI cohort was 1.2 and a somewhat higher 2.5 for the moderate SVI cohort, but skyrocketed to 13.3 in the very high SVI cohort, an eleven-fold higher death rate. “Incidents among youths in communities with very high SVI accounted for 25.9% of the total youth population and 61.3% of assault-related firearm deaths.”
The relationship between gun control laws (per Giffords rankings) and gun-violence deaths was far less aggressive. According to the study, the death rate per 100,000 person-years for Census tracts in states with restrictive gun laws (rated A or B) was 4.21 and a somewhat higher 4.95 for tracts in states with moderate gun laws, but 7.04 for tracts in states with permissive gun laws (Giffords rated as D and F). However, “[a]lthough the assault-related firearm death rate among youths was higher overall in states with permissive compared with restrictive gun laws, the increase in death rate with increasing social vulnerability persisted, regardless of restrictive, moderate, or permissive gun laws.”
The study authors concluded that stricter gun laws “did not seem to equalize the consequences on a relative scale” given that social vulnerability-disadvantage was disproportionately associated with assault-related firearm deaths “across the spectrum of state gun laws,” and accordingly, “more restrictive firearm laws are unlikely by themselves to reduce the disparities observed in firearm death rates among youths across communities.”
In an interview about the results, the lead study author Dr. Deepika Nehra stated that, “[w]hat is clear from our work is that regardless of the strength of the gun laws in an area, the youth gun-related death rate is notably higher in the most socially vulnerable communities … In both the permissive and restrictive gun law states, the death rate was 10- to 12-fold higher in the most vulnerable communities compared to the least vulnerable communities.”
Additional evidence supports the conclusion that “location, location, location” plays a more decisive role than legislation. A 2023 analysis by John Lott, Jr. of the Crime Prevention Research Council (CPRC) reviewed the distribution of murders across America using 2020 data, and determined that murders tend to be concentrated in a small set of counties. The worst 1% of counties (the worst 31 counties) had 21% of the population but experienced 42% of the murders. An appendix to the study lists the “worst 1% of counties in 2020 in terms of number of murders.” At the top of the list are Cook County, IL and Los Angeles County, CA – both in states that are A-rated for their gun control laws by the Giffords Law Center. Numbers four and five on the list are Philadelphia and New York City’s five counties, likewise in states that are classed as “restrictive” gun control states (awarded a B and an A rating, respectively, from Giffords).
One of our earlier alerts described similar research on how crime tends to occur in “hot spots” of places or people “that generate a disproportionate amount of criminal events.” In the District of Columbia, for instance a 2021 study found that “most gun violence is tightly concentrated on a small number of very high risk” individuals who “share a common set of risk factors, including: involvement in street crews/groups; significant criminal justice history including prior or active community supervision; often prior victimization; and a connection to a recent shooting (within the past 12 months).”
This latest study simply reinforces what we already know. “Permissive” gun laws or red state gun policies, increased gun sales, or even cars that may be too easy to steal, aren’t contributing to the wave of violence and crime. Gun control “solutions” that concentrate on more restrictive legislation, the disarming of responsible citizens, and making access to firearms more expensive and burdensome for the law-abiding, are not the way to address the problem.