UC Davis study demonstrates importance of within-state variation
In 2016, California had one of the lowest death rates from gun violence in the country. This statistic has shifted since then, but the reality is more complex than “up” or “down.”
A study from UC Davis collected data on firearm-related homicides and suicides in California over a 16-year period, from 2000 to 2015. This data came from counties across the state and was analyzed by age, sex, race and population density to determine variations between different regions and societal groups. What researchers found depended on where they looked.
“Homicide is often thought of as an urban problem — and rates were highest in the most urban counties at the beginning of our study period — but we found that rates declined substantially in these areas since the mid-2000s,” said Veronica Pear, a research data analyst at the Violence Prevention Research Program and lead author of the study, in an email interview. “In Los Angeles County alone, rates of firearm homicide declined 54 percent since 2002 (the county’s peak). As a result, rates in the less densely populated areas in the middle of the state exceeded rates in the more metropolitan counties by 2015.”
This steep decline in firearm homicides in urban areas drove down the state’s overall homicide rate, despite increasing homicides in Northern and Central California. The reasons behind these changes are unknown. Suicide rates followed a different pattern. Since the mid-2000s, suicides by gun have become slightly more common in California despite other methods of suicide increasing in frequency more quickly.
“In the United States, it seems that the majority of the deaths from firearm violence, or more than half of the deaths from firearm violence, are suicides rather than homicides,” said Magdalena Cerda, an associate professor in emergency medicine at UC Davis and associate director of the Violence Prevention Research Program. “But in California, we found that firearm homicide accounted for more than half the deaths from firearm violence. So I think one of the interesting things to look at is why is that happening — why we find different patterns in California relative to the United States.”
Nationally, black people are the most frequent victims of homicide, but in California, Hispanics were the most frequent victims of firearm homicide, at 45 percent, due in part to the high proportion of Hispanics living in the state. This is one of many statistics presented in the study that demonstrate a need for more research in regional patterns of firearm violence. Research attuned to within-state variations could determine key factors for suicide and homicide.
“Studying firearm mortality within a state basically enables us to identify the groups who are suffering the most firearm violence and who, therefore, should receive more attention in terms of prevention and resources,” Pear said. “As an example, our study found firearm suicide rates to be three times higher in rural than urban counties. County officials can use this information to inform how they allocate the county budget, perhaps putting more money into mental healthcare resources for rural residents. Public health practitioners can also use this information to target interventions to the groups at highest risk.”
Both future and current programs would benefit from more detailed information on firearm violence. As national firearm injury rates appear to spike and controversy over Second Amendment rights continue, knowing which projects have made a difference in minimizing firearm casualties becomes all the more important.
“California has led the efforts to decrease firearm morbidity and mortality in the U.S., including expansion of background checks for all firearm transactions, limits on magazine rounds and a recent program to recover firearms among people who bought firearms legally which became prohibited afterward, among other programs,” said Alvaro Castillo, a postdoctoral fellow with the Violence Prevention Research Program. “The effectiveness of these programs is not well known yet, and that is part of the goal of the California Firearm Center and the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis: to evaluate those programs and to provide information for decision making.”
Written by: Kira Burnett — firstname.lastname@example.org