Disparity of deaths by firearms shaped by race

VJ Smith
VJ Smith is CEO and president of the Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder Minneapolis chapter. The organization, nearly 15 years old, performs community outreach and intervention to help prevent violence in urban neighborhoods. Smith said African-Americans living in crime-stressed parts of Minneapolis have a very different relationship with firearms than white people who live in small towns.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

There are dramatic differences in the role that guns play in the deaths of white and black Minnesotans. African-Americans are much more likely to be killed by firearms than whites are in Minnesota. At the same time, whites are more likely than African-Americans to use guns to kill themselves.

MPR News analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gun homicides and suicides between 2008 and 2010, which is the most recent data categorized by race. The data show African-Americans are 12-times more likely than their white counterparts to die from gun homicides in Minnesota. The disparity is higher than the national black-white gap -- which is 10 to one.

Chart: Race disparity found in gun death data
Map: Permit to carry firearms

During those three years, 73 black, non-Hispanic Minnesotans died from firearm-related homicides, with an age-adjusted gun homicide rate of 7.3 per 100,000. Seventy-eight white Minnesotans died from gun homicides, a rate of 0.6 per 100,000. Both rates measure lower than nationwide numbers.

Yet, white Minnesotans are more likely than African-Americans to use guns for suicide. During that same three-year period, about 800 white residents killed themselves with guns, compared to just 17 black Minnesotans.

According to the CDC, the suicide rate of African-Americans by guns is too low to make a direct comparison with the suicide rate of white people by guns. However, a non age-adjusted calculation shows the white gun-suicide rate to be three-times higher than the rate for African Americans.

The data show the majority of black gun-homicide victims are men or boys who live in urban areas, while white gun-suicide victims are most often men who live in rural counties.

"There's more of an individualistic persona -- you kind of have to deal with things on your own. Kind of a mentality of just dealing with your own difficulties or life struggles."

"It's a multi-factored, complex problem," said Roxann Storms, a clinical social worker based in St. Cloud. She leads a support group for people who have lost someone close to them to suicide, and works one-on-one with clients who have considered or already attempted taking their own lives.

Many people in rural Minnesota have relatively easy access to firearms and limited access to mental health services, Storms said. They often possess a fierce sense of self-reliance.

"There's more of an individualistic persona -- you kind of have to deal with things on your own," Storms said. "Kind of a mentality of just dealing with your own difficulties or life struggles."

Storms said research shows that African-Americans living in urban areas are often more closely connected to family or other social networks. That support helps reduce suicide, she said.

African-Americans are also less likely to own firearms -- the instrument most likely to result in a completed suicide.

A February 2013 report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows gun ownership is higher in white households than in black households, by a margin of more than two to one.

Pew research also shows African-Americans tend to favor stricter gun laws than white Americans. A separate recent report found more than 70 percent of African-Americans, compared to 43 percent of white respondents, said it was more important to control gun ownership, than to protect gun rights.

GUN VIOLENCE SHAPES VIEWS

The prevalence of gun violence in some black communities appears to play a role in African-Americans' views on gun control.

Trevon Prince
Trevon Prince, 17 came to and open house hosted by Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder to tell people about a program he is involved with in north Minneapolis called North 4. MAD DADS announced a partnership with the program, which helps gang-involved youth leave the gang lifestyle by helping them get jobs and education.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

A recent open house at the south Minneapolis headquarters of MAD DADS -- Men Against Destruction, Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder - brought a group of people together to discuss gun violence.

African-Americans living in crime-stressed parts of Minneapolis have a very different relationship with firearms than white people who live in small towns, said VJ Smith, president and CEO of MAD DADS.

"Most of our families don't have guns in our homes for recreational use. Those guns come in from the streets and they come in from the mob; they come in from drug deals; they come in from different things," Smith said.

"Those guns get used for different things. Those guns get used to rob people. Those guns get used because we have so much rage and anger in our community, that the first we're willing to do is to shoot somebody."

Smith believes in stricter gun laws. But he also says more needs to be done to improve the lives of young men.

Seventeen-year-old Trevon Prince attended the open house to meet with Smith and other anti-violence activists. Prince said he has lost friends and family to gun violence, and has witnessed several murders and dozens of shootings.

Once it happened right in front of him.

"He got shot under his chest," Prince recalls the incident. "He was dizzy, still conscious, but his eyes were rolling in the back of his head. The blood was actually pouring out of his wound."

Prince is a senior at an alternative high school and said he plans to attend college to get a business degree. He is also enrolled in a program in north Minneapolis that helps gang-involved youth get out of the lifestyle.

It's too easy for young men to get guns from dealers who sell them illegally, Prince said. He said tougher penalties for gun traffickers would help.

"I'm not saying it's going to be stopped, but it can be lowered," he said. "The gun violence and how many guns are pushed through the communities and our neighborhoods -- I think that can be controlled."

As gun control legislation is debated at the Capitol, gun homicides of black Minnesotans have been declining.

"We've seen a marked decline in the African-American homicide rate," said Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. "It declined 63 percent in blacks between 2004 to 2009."

He said the overall homicide rate for white Minnesotans has also declined over the last decade by 42 percent.

However, state data show firearms suicides for white Minnesotans have been rising. A report is expected from the state health department this spring.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.