Gun Violence Increasingly a Rural Problem, Study Finds

The study is the first in 30 years to profile firearm fatalities in California, said Veronica Pear, first author of the study.

Deaths from gun violence have declined in California’s urban counties over the past 15 years, but the problem is now more pronounced in rural and central parts of the state, a new study shows.

Researchers at UC Davis’ Violence Prevention Research Program evaluated more than 50,000 firearm deaths – both homicides and suicides – recorded in California counties between 2000 and 2015. At the start of the study, firearm homicide was largely an urban problem, the researchers found. But by 2015, gun murders in urban areas had dropped, resulting in similar rates in both urban and rural counties, the research showed.

The study also detected a slight uptick in suicide rates by gun since 2000, mirroring national trends. These suicides were concentrated in rural areas and among whites, the researchers discovered.

Published in the May issue of Annals of Epidemiology,the study is the first in 30 years to profile firearm fatalities in California, said Veronica Pear, a research data analyst with the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and first author of the study.

“We just really didn’t know what are the rates, how does it vary by county, what are the absolute number of deaths by different categories,” she said. “These things are important because it can tell you the groups at highest risk and where resources need to be allocated.”

Los Angeles County, home to more than a quarter of California’s population, drove most of the statewide decline in gun homicides. Firearm murders there peaked in 2002, and then dropped by more than half over the subsequent decade, the study indicated. Pear said the decline could be related to reductions in gang violence in the county, but more research is needed to understand the drop off.

Without LA County, the overall firearm homicide rate in California increased. Twenty-seven counties located in northern and central California saw their rates of gun homicide rise during the study period.

“It’s important to look at within-state variations in firearm violence,” Pear said. “This is something that’s often overlooked. A lot of times people look at state-level studies… rather than county-level or some smaller level of resolution. Doing that aggregating up to the state is really masking all this variation that we found.”

For black men, the news was both positive and discouraging. For that population, gun homicides dropped from a peak of 47 deaths per 100,000 in 2005, to 32 deaths per 100,000 in 2015.

Still, black men – particularly those in their twenties – faced a far higher risk of being murdered by a firearm than any other demographic group, the report found.

Meanwhile, firearm suicides increased slightly over the study period, plateauing at around 4 deaths per 100,000 residents starting in 2007. Suicide rates in rural areas were three times higher than in urban counties. Older white men were more likely than other demographic groups to die by gun suicide.

Whites in general had more than six times the number of deaths due to firearm suicide than any other group.

Here are some other takeaways from the study:

  • Gun homicides peaked statewide in 2005 at just over five deaths per 100,000 residents. It declined to just over three deaths per 100,000 residents in 2015.
  • Men were seven times more likely to die from gun homicide than women.
  • Men were eight times more likely to commit suicide with a gun than women.
  • Black men were 4 times more likely to be murdered by guns than Hispanic men, the next most at-risk group.
  • For white men, gun suicides were highest among the fifties age group. Among men of color, gun suicides peaked between the ages of 20 and 29.
  • Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area had the lowest suicide rates.

While the study doesn’t explain the reasons behind the various trends, Pear said she hoped it would inspire further research, and capture the attention of policy makers.

“I hope that researchers see it and are inspired to look into why some of these things are happening,” she said. “I also hope that policymakers are exposed to the findings and they can look at where they live and their areas and see if they can improve, or if they have improved, maybe look into what was going on that might have accounted for that.”

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