You can’t blame immigrants for gun violence

By Mike Males
July 24, 2014

A pile of handguns are placed in a trash bin after they were surrendered during a gun buyback program in Los Angeles, California

The eruption of anti-immigrant fury over the federal government’s plans to temporarily relocate undocumented Latino children to shelters and Border Patrol facilities in Murietta, California, and other cities, is largely founded on the expressed belief that immigrants bring drugs and crime, threatening the safety of communities.

Yet as figures from the Murietta Police Department show, Latinos commit fewer crimes, especially drug offenses, compared to whites in their respective proportions of the city’s population.  Racially diverse areas with rapidly growing, younger immigrant populations are also becoming dramatically safer from gun violence, according to surprising new figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

While the United States still confronts  serious gun violence, its parameters have changed dramatically. Twenty years ago, young Latino men were among those most at risk of dying from gunfire; today, older white men are more endangered.

firearms -- revised chart

These trends are illustrated most strikingly in the three most populous states — California, Texas, and New York – where firearms deaths are declining two to three times faster than elsewhere in the country. Developments in these very different states challenge conventional debate on immigration policy and guns.

Comparing the 2011 rate of gun deaths per capita with each state’s peak rate in the early 1990s, gun fatality rates fell by 63 percent in New York, 55 percent in California and 53 percent in Texas — more than double the decline (23 percent) in the other 47 states. Other large states such as Florida, Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania lagged far behind the big three.

These trends should shake up the debate over gun control. Among the 50 states, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks California’s gun control laws as the strictest and New York’s as the fourth strictest, with expanded background checks and assault-weapons bans. Texas’ laws, however, are among the weakest, allowing citizens broad gun-carrying rights. Whether lenient laws encourage more guns or more guns foster lenient laws, many more Texans (36 percent) own guns than Californians (21 percent) or New Yorkers (18 percent).

Customers view semi automatic guns on display at a gun shop in Los Angeles CaliforniaWhat’s behind the big-state decline? In all three, a clear pattern emerges: rapidly growing, younger Hispanic and Asian populations were associated with bigger drops in — and lower rates of — gun fatalities, particularly in cities.

In past decades, California, New York and Texas’ young Latino men ages 10 to 24 suffered twice the risk of being killed by guns than white, non-Hispanic men aged 40 and older. After enormous population growth, young Hispanic men today are substantially less at risk from guns than older white men.

The large decline in gun killings among young people of all races and the recent increase among older whites strengthens a Violence Policy Center analysis of surveys noting that “the aging of the current gun-owning population — primarily white males — and a lack of interest in guns by youth.” Maybe the newer, more diverse America has had enough.

Large cities including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso have all experienced large drops in gun-related killings. While residents of big cities regularly suffered the highest gun-fatality rates in past decades, suburban and rural areas are more at risk today.

Street artist Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New YorkNearly all of New York’s decline in gun violence occurred in racially diverse New York City (gun-death rates down 81 percent), compared to only a modest decline in the rest of the state, which is older and whiter. Despite its Wild West image, Texas’ big gun problem today is not drug-running immigrants, home-invading thugs or vigilantes incited by pro-gun laws. Increasingly, it’s middle-aged white men shooting themselves.

California’s broad-based, more sustained decline is the most intriguing. Gun-death rates fell in cities (by 55 percent) and non-urban areas (by 46 percent) and for both homicides (by 61 percent) and suicides/accidents (by 46 percent).

The larger political question is: If the nation’s three biggest states all experienced large drops in gun fatalities under radically different gun policies, do gun control laws and gun rights matter?

Perhaps, though not as conventionally thought. Stricter gun-control states regularly have lower firearms death rates than gun-rights states, a pattern the three largest states illustrate. Gun-control New York (5.0 gun deaths per 100,000 population in 2011) and California (8.0 per 100,000) are the safest. Gun-rights Texas remains more dangerous (10.2 per 100,000).

But that’s largely because gun suicide and accident rates are far higher in states with high firearms ownership, which tend to have weak gun controls. New York has the lowest gun suicide rate (2.5 per 100,000 population), compared to California (4.3) and Texas (6.9).

Members of the community hold up candles as they listen to taps being played during a commemoration and candlelight vigil on the campus of Virginia Tech in BlacksburgHowever, if the major concern about guns is murder, the picture gets more complicated. New York remains the safest (2.5 gun homicides per 100,000 population), but Texas (3.3) is only marginally worse and ranks slightly safer than California (3.7).

In addition, even after major improvements, gun violence remains widespread in areas of concentrated poverty. In impoverished Richmond, California (population 110,000), scores of teenaged youths have died in gun homicides since 1995. In affluent Marin County across the Bay (population 250,000), none have. Across California, 83 percent of teenage gun homicides occur in populations with youth poverty rates topping 20 percent. Fewer than 2 percent occur in areas with youth poverty rates below 10 percent.

Even in Chicago, gun violence has dropped sharply in recent decades, particularly among young people. It is now at the lowest level in at least 40 years. But, as in most large cities, its most impoverished neighborhoods suffer continued outbreaks of shootings.

Where not subjected to crushing poverty, the new emerging America of more diverse, younger, immigrant and urban populations appears far less fearful, intolerant and enamored with guns. The traditionalists dominating gun and immigrant policy debates should put aside their politics of anger and learn from them.


PHOTO (TOP): A pile of handguns are placed in a trash bin after they were surrendered during a gun buyback program organized by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office in Los Angeles, California, December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian


PHOTO (INSERT 1): Customers view semi automatic guns on display at a gun shop in Los Angeles, California, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Street artist Mark Panzarino, 41, prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York, June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Members of the community hold up candles as they listen to Taps being played during a commemoration and candlelight vigil on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, April 16, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane



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