In the wake of the heartbreaking tragedy out of Uvalde, emotion runs high, and the subject of gun control comes to the fore with renewed urgency. A recent New York Times article by Sacramento-based correspondent Shawn Hubler claims that “California Has America’s Toughest Gun Laws, and They Work.” The article draws heavily from an interview with Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency room doctor and longtime firearm violence researcher who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento.
On the surface, Dr. Wintemute’s methodology appears to be pretty sound: For example, he acknowledges that California has had the most mass shootings but points out that since California is the most populous state, it would be expected to have more mass shootings than less populous states. He also correctly points out that it is the rate of gun homicides in a state that really tell the tale, not the absolute numbers. He cites 2020 figures that show California’s rate to be 8.5 per 100,000 and the rate of my home state, Texas, to be higher at 14.2 per 100,000.
One thing he didn’t address, however, was whether demographics play a role in the overall rates. If a particular group commits a disproportionately higher percentage of gun homicides, would the underrepresentation or overrepresentation of that group in a state significantly affect the rate in that state? I touched on this question is a previous article dealing with the “red state murder problem,” asking exactly who it was who was committing those murders in the “red” states, “reds” or “blues”? An item I addressed was a comparison made in a think tank article between a city with a Republican mayor in a red state (Jacksonville, Florida) and a city with a Democrat mayor in a blue state (San Francisco, California). Although both cities had comparable populations, Jacksonville had 128 more murders in 2020 than San Francisco. However, as I was soon to discover, San Francisco had a black population of only about 5.1 percent, whereas Jacksonville had a black population of about 31 percent, and 82 percent of homicide arrests in Jacksonville were of black suspects.
Now let’s look again at the gun homicide rates cited by Dr. Wintemute, 8.5 for California vis-à-vis 14.2 for Texas. The Texas rate is about 1.7 times as high as the California rate. Now let’s compare the black population percentage of each state, about 6.5 percent for California and about 11.8 percent for Texas. The Texas percentage is about 1.8 times as high as the California percentage. So a state with a black population about 1.8 times as high as another state also has a gun homicide rate about 1.7 times as high as that other state. Interesting coincidence, is it not?
So does California have a lower gun homicide rate than Texas because of California gun laws, or does California have a lower gun homicide rate than Texas because California has a smaller population of a group whose gun homicide offenders commit a highly disproportionate percentage of gun homicides?