Gun violence is a pressing issue in the United States, and the statistics reveal a striking contrast between different regions regarding gun deaths, red states, which are typically associated with conservative ideologies, exhibit significantly higher rates than blue states, which are often associated with more progressive ideologies. This disparity in gun violence statistics reveals a complex interplay of cultural and ideological factors contributing to the problem.
In a recent article published in Nationhood Lab about violence in America, particularly gun violence, there has been a stark contrast in perceptions depending on the region of the country one hails from. Politicians and public figures from southern states like Florida and Texas have quickly pointed fingers at cities like New York City, blaming Democratic leadership for what they describe as a “war zone” of violence. However, a closer look at the data reveals a different story.
In October, Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis made headlines when he proclaimed that crime in New York City was “out of control” and blamed it on liberal philanthropist George Soros. Former President Donald Trump, a native of Florida, also joined in the chorus, describing Democrat-run cities as dystopian war zones. Similarly, in May 2022, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas pushed back against suggestions for stricter gun laws after a tragic school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, by claiming that cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City disprove the effectiveness of such laws.
However, data on gun violence tells a different story. When it comes to per capita firearm death rates, which include both homicides and suicides, the regions of Florida and Texas have rates three to four times higher than that of New York City. The region that encompasses New York City is one of the safest parts of the mainland United States in terms of gun violence. The highest rates of deadly gun violence are found in the country’s southern swath, encompassing cities and rural areas, where Republicans have held state governments for decades.
To understand the root of these disparities, one must look beyond modern policy differences and delve into the historical and cultural factors at play. America’s regional cultures are shaped by the colonial projects that settled different parts of the country, often with little in common and sometimes even in conflict. From the Puritan-controlled New England to the Dutch-settled New York City, the Quaker-founded Delaware Valley to the Scots Irish-led Appalachians, and the West Indies-style slave society in the Deep South to the Spanish project in the Southwest, these regions had distinct ethnographic, religious, economic, and ideological characteristics that continue to influence attitudes towards guns, violence, and policy today.
These regional cultures are not limited by state boundaries defined by the U.S. Census divisions but rather span multiple states and regions. For example, southwestern Pennsylvania and the Texas Hill Country share historical links in settlement streams, with generations of Scots-Irish and lowland Scots settlers moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and eventually down to Texas and Oklahoma. Similar colonization movements can be traced from Maine to Minnesota, Charleston to Houston, and Pennsylvania Dutch Country to central Iowa.
Recognizing these historical forces and cultural attitudes towards guns and violence can provide essential insights into how to approach policy interventions, such as gun reform, more nuanced and compelling. Crafting regionally tailored messaging that acknowledges and respects these traditions and attitudes, rather than simply relying on party allegiance, could help build coalitions for change at the state and federal levels. As Carl T. Bogus of Roger Williams University School of Law says, “Culture is compelling.” It must be considered in addressing complex issues like gun violence in America.