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Is 95% of gun violence occurring in 'inner cities'? No
If Your Time is short
• Looking only at gun homicides, urban centers do account for a disproportionate share of gun deaths. However, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data suggests that the percentage is 45%, and a paper by a gun-friendly researcher cited by Short’s office put it at 73%.
• The role of large central cities is even smaller once you include suicides, which Short’s term "gun violence" would include. Less-dense areas account for a disproportionate share of gun suicides.
• Strict gun control laws in cities are largely rendered moot when they are located in a state with more permissive gun laws, or else in close proximity to states with looser gun laws.
Amid a spate of mass shootings, Marc Short, a former White House aide to Donald Trump and Mike Pence, sought to provide some context on gun violence patterns.
"The reality is that, this year, there have been 13,000 deaths by gun violence," Short, now a consultant and commentator, told CNN host Jake Tapper on May 7. "The vast majority, 95% of them, are in inner cities, where you have some of the strictest gun control laws in the country."
Short said policymakers were not being "tough on crime in general." But his statistic on where the vast majority of gun violence takes place is misleading.
Our reporting found that major urban areas do account for a disproportionate share of gun homicides, but not close to 95%. And Short’s assertion that urban areas have some of the strictest gun control laws in the country lacks important context.
Here’s an assessment of some of Short’s key points.
There are statistics supporting this claim, but they require caveats.
The most solid numbers for gun violence are published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the most recent numbers cover 2021, so they would not illuminate patterns "this year."
A more up-to-date tally is available at the Gun Violence Archive, an independent nonprofit. Through May 7, the group found close to 15,000 gun deaths.
However, the 15,000 gun-death figure is not limited to homicides; it also includes accidental gun deaths, gun deaths from law enforcement intervention and suicides. As of May 7, about 57% of the gun deaths the group has tracked this year were suicides. Homicides accounted for much of the remaining 43%.
So, the words Short used on CNN refer to suicides as well as homicides. And that undercuts the reliability of the rest of his statement.
For this figure, Short's office pointed PolitFact to a paper from January that found a high concentration of homicides in urban counties. The paper was authored by John Lott, whose pro-gun findings have elicited criticism over the years.
Lott looked at the U.S. counties with the largest number of gun homicides in 2020 and found that "the worst 5% of counties contain 47% of the population and account for 73% of murders."
However, using the nation’s 3,145 counties as a baseline can be misleading, because the country includes many small-population counties.
Twenty-three percent of counties have fewer than 10,000 residents, and 19% more have populations between 10,000 and 20,000. Collectively, these 42% of counties account for less than 4% of the nation’s population. So, using counties as the denominator tends to shrink the overall percentage of counties that are large and have significant numbers of homicides.
Aided by Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York, we took a different cut at the data. Schildkraut pointed us to CDC figures for 2021, broken down by the type of geographical area.
There is no standard federal definition of an "inner city," a term which can have connotations of a heavily minority population.
The two largest of the six categories are "large central metro" areas and "large fringe metro" areas. By way of example, in the New York City metro area, the five counties representing the five boroughs of New York are each considered "large central metro" areas. The more suburban counties in the surrounding region — such as Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island, Westchester north of the city, and Bergen in New Jersey — are considered "large fringe metro" areas.
The data shows that less than 45% of gun homicides occurred in the densest areas, the "large central metro" areas. The next largest share, about 17%, came from "large fringe metro" areas. However, the category of heavily suburban counties would seem to clash with Short’s use of the term "inner cities."
A 2022 report by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Violence Solutions concluded that 13 of the 20 counties with the highest rates of firearm homicides from 2016 to 2020 were rural, such as Phillips County, Arkansas, which has 22,000 residents but the nation’s highest gun homicide rate.
Based on Short’s phrasing, about 45% of gun homicides occur in the areas he’s talking about. That’s less than half of the 95% figure he cited.
But Short’s figure is even more exaggerated if you stick to his phrase "gun violence," which includes suicides.
The same CDC data set shows that rather than being concentrated in large metro areas, suicides are more common in less-populated areas. Over 20% of suicides occurred in "large central metro" areas.
Adjusting for population, suicides are even rarer in large metro areas. Per 100,000 residents, the suicide rate increases steadily for each step toward a less-dense geographical area, meaning that large metro areas have the lowest suicide rates.
According to The Pew Research Center, the states with the highest gun suicide rates in 2021 were heavily rural — Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Most of the states with the lowest gun suicide rates were more urbanized — Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, along with Hawaii.
Ultimately, Short has a point that gun homicide rates in center cities are disproportionately high compared to less-dense areas. But the share of gun homicides in center cities is nowhere near 95% of all gun homicides, much less all gun deaths including suicides.
Even before recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions rolled back some gun laws, city laws against access to guns were weakened by geographical realities. If nearby areas allow wider access to guns, those guns will tend to gravitate to the big cities, regardless of how tough the gun laws are in those cities.
Historically, for instance, the effect of strict gun laws in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore was weakened by looser gun laws in Virginia. Tough laws in Chicago were undercut by the city’s proximity to Indiana, a state with laxer gun laws.
Meanwhile, big cities such as Dallas and Houston, are in red states with largely permissive gun laws. Forty-five states have adopted laws curtailing or entirely prohibiting local gun regulation locally, taking away the possibility of passing tougher gun laws.
When we asked about his claim, Short’s office told PolitiFact that he was referring to cities where prosecutors are not prosecuting certain crimes. But on "State of the Union," Short mentioned gun control laws, not prosecutorial decisions.
Short said, "This year, there have been 13,000 deaths by gun violence. The vast majority, 95% of them, are in inner cities, where you have some of the strictest gun control laws in the country."
Looking only at gun homicides, urban centers do account for a disproportionate share of gun deaths. However, CDC data suggests that the percentage is 45%, and even a paper by a gun-friendly researcher cited by Short’s office put it at 73%.
The role of large central cities is even smaller once you include suicides, which are included in term "gun violence." Less-dense areas account for a disproportionate share of gun suicides.
Meanwhile, strict gun control laws in cities are rendered largely moot by being part of a state that has more permissive gun laws, or is close to states with looser gun laws.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
CNN "State of the Union," transcript, May 7, 2023
Gun Violence Archive, main page, accessed May 9, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WONDER database
U.S. Census Bureau, population by county, accessed May 9, 2023
Pew Research Center, "What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.," April 26, 2023
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "NCHS urban-rural classification scheme for counties," accessed May 9, 2023
Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, "A year in review: 2020 gun deaths in the U.S.," April 28, 2022
John Lott, "Murders in US are very concentrated, and they are becoming even more so," Jan. 18, 2023
Dictionary.com, definition of "inner city," accessed May 9, 2023
Urban Institute, "The problem with talking about 'inner cities,'" Nov. 3, 2016
Rachel Simon, "The firearm preemption phenomenon" (Cardozo Law Review), 2022
The New York Times, "How gun traffickers get around state gun laws," Nov. 13, 2015
Baltimore magazine, "The iron pipeline," accessed May 9, 2023
USA Today, "'Eye-popping numbers': Chicago sues Indiana gun store tied to 850 firearms recovered from crime scenes," April 27, 2021
Email interviews with Mark Bryant, executive director for the Gun Violence Archive, May 8-9, 2023
Email interviews with Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, May 8-9, 2023
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