Mapping Gun Violence versus Gun Ownership

When State Senator Audrey Gibson introduced a Bill 1678 in Florida’s Duval County to mandate completion of a two-hour anger management course before their purchase of a firearm–and for that course to be retaken every ten years–a flurry of consternation and protest broke loose.  Never mind that you can take the course online, and that it only lasts two hours–it was seen as an infringement on the sacrosanct individual rights, independently form the traditions of government designed to protect the common good–yet, by a dogmatism of faith, asserting the protection of individual rights in ways that seem particularly corrosive to the ideal of a representative democracy.

How did this come about, and is there a distinct geography in which liberties for gun ownership are more fiercely protected and agitated for in place of equal protection for citizens?  Such a demand feeds both into the elevation of “rights” as an extension of the absence of constraints on individuals, and the expression of a politics of true sincerity and purity, based on the protection of the individual both against government oversight in any form, and a conviction that government policies need to be scrutinized for their infringement on a purely individual concept of liberty.  The misconstrual of gun ownership as an individual right within the Bill of Rights and that is not able to be over-run or revised by state or local government is based on an interpretation of the Second Amendment long advocated by the NRA in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), affirming an individual right to own guns within one’s home and on one’s person–as if it was implicit in the framers’ assertion that “well regulated Militia, being necessary to the [collective] security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”   The opinion that this assertion constitutes grounds for the legal protection of individual gun ownership rested on the majority opinion that the thirteen words that began the Second Amendment constituted “prefatory” matter,” rather than qualify the terms of and reasons for the defense of gun ownership, has enshrined a perversely popular interpretation, long sought by the National Rifle Association, protects individual possession of guns, even in the face of a near-epidemic of mass shootings in the United States.

It is not a coincidence that the geography of such claims match with the melding of a dogma of liberty in a fear of the usurpation of rights, and need to protect such rights from below–by bringing politics directly to “the people,” their true source of expression–in ways rooted in faith, rather than a model of inclusive citizenship, and a dogmatism rooted in faith, rather than a body of open debate.  It is in specific geographic corridors that gun culture is not only greater, but a “healthy” relation to guns asserted to exist–despite some significant evidence to the contrary.

In Florida, Gibson’s bill was quickly labeled not only an infringement of (“God”-given) inalienable rights, but labeled as “the stupidest thing I  have ever heard” by the owner of Jacksonville’s St. Nicholas Gun and Sporting Goods Store, who might be worried it would hamper sales more than lead to a black-market in firearms (which would further undercut his business, I suppose).  The serious abuse of the Second Amendment across the country rests in part in how the right to a piece is believed natural.  Indeed, the attempt to align it with populist claims, hostile to pluralism, dissent, or liberal traditions, is not only parasitical on a tradition of representative democracy, but against the dispersion of power in a state based on representational democracy:  based on an intentionally polarizing discourse, the interpretation of democracy on which it turns–the trumpeting of individual rights over those of the collective–may indeed be mapped more clearly than one would imagine by normalizing it as opinion, and merely placing it at one end of a political spectrum.

Recalling the sort of strained logic by which the firearms of abusive spouses are being legally protected after threats to employ them as instruments of attack or violent murder, despite the issuance of restraining orders, civil protection orders and affidavits attesting to substantial  fears of abuse.  “Rights” to bear arms are meanwhile championed as if they were inalienable, and in fact even in need of protection from the “insult” of a requisite two-hour anger management course.  If the intent was to encourage introspection, they’ve been seen as fighting words.  While we can both learn about the bill and track it here, we can see a broader set of trends across the country by creating a Google map served up by Mother Jones that starkly maps the state of our nation, using light brown to designate states in which  gun-related deaths already exceeded traffic-related fatalities, and a dismal darker brown to designate states where the number of gun-related suicides exceed the number deaths caused by automobile accidents:


Car Fatalities v. Deaths by Guns


It’s not a secret that the United States leads the world in gun-ownership, and that a Gallup poll puts the percentage of Americans owning guns at a massive 34%.  Al Jazeera compiled this map, of less clear correlation, between gun-ownership and gun-deaths, which I suppose reveals the results of local densities of firearms:




Tempting as it is to map this onto a red state/blue state divide and a familiar choropleth map, such an supposition would depend on universal voter registration–which is far from the case.  A more provocative map might use the same statistics to construct a set of maps of the relative deadliness of individual states’ “gun cultures.”  The notion that each state has its own culture of violence is clearly itself a fiction that is perpetuated in large part by pollsters, choroplethic mappers or demographic ingenuity, and oddly erases regional difference or urban specificity–and discards economic variations in favor of a viewable poll that clearly consciously recalls electoral data.  But the variations could tell us a lot about the universality of gun violence in regional terms, beyond a  simple mapping on to zip codes, which predictably intensify in urban areas, like the recent map that was published as an interactive map by the White Plains Journal News in Westchester and Rockland counties, but which created a mini-controversy as an invasion of personal privacy by internet vigilantes who decried tactics of intimidation, rather news–as if someone would chase these poor firearm owners.




That site was quickly pulled, of course, though the interactive properties of such a dense map of gun ownership is hardly such a gross invasion of privacy, since the guns are registered in legal databases.  Yet law-abiding gun owners like Keisha Sutton felt that the public map exposed “me, my family, my friends, and others at risk,” presumably from the violent gun-control crowd, and was argued by others to increase underground black-market gun sales:  look at the huge number of on-line responses that the article generated.  It is of course not a problem to post multiple locator maps of your local gun retailers, should you want to purchase one.  (It would be interesting to map these sites’ internet use, of course.)

But let’s return to the question of regional variations that these folks have mapped.  Questions of national variation are considerably complex.  If we start by mapping the most guns owned by percentage of the state’s population,




to get a little more statistically refined as mappers, distinguishing rates in the ownership of guns and firearms in relation to individual states’ populations:




We can hypothesize an index of the oxymoron of a local “healthy gun culture health,” that, argues one website, might be a better index of personal or individual safety from guns–and which exists in something like a direct inverse to sites of the greatest levels gun-ownership or numbers of gun in circulation:
Color Map of State Gun Cultures


But if we apply what might be called critical thinking, or just comparison, although the deadly gun culture in Nevada is revealed in the above comparison of the balance between gun-related deaths to traffic-accidents, some of the states with “healthy” gun cultures, to use that tragically oxymoronic term, like Oregon, Colorado, or Utah, turn out to not be the very places where an anger-management course might have been just the thing that would have saved some lives.  (Let’s table for now the related question of why Colorado is plagued by such a high number of gun-related suicides–or the fact that 75% of gun-related deaths are due to suicide in the state–or the impact that announcing restrictions on firearm ownership might create.)  That at least offers convincing cases of where it might actually have been a very good idea to keep guns out of some people’s hands.

The defeat of any of the proposed limitations on the purchase or ownership of guns in this country–either though screening purchases by background checks, checking for mental illness, or for restrictions on on-line gun shows–turns a blind eye to these maps, and to the notion that the prevalence of guns in our schools and culture is not a problem:  and even to believe that one can cast owning firearms as a protection of a liberty.  Not only is the Senate in “the gun lobby’s grip,” as Gabrielle Giffords put it, but country and media seem to have turned a blind eye to their responsibilities to regulate access to guns.  Indeed, the notion that the government could even release any information to map gun-ownership was wholeheartedly rejected by Senators, in response to a request from the Republican senator from Wyoming, penalizing local governments for releasing any public registry of ownership of guns.  Indeed, the rush to get gun licenses and sharp increase in weapon sales  in response to consideration of tighter gun control laws–“not just because President Obama and his administration are hell-bent on introducing some form of worse-than-useless gun control in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino CA,” put it, but because the government “cannot keep you safe.”  The notion that free access to semiautomatic rifles increased safety is so reflexive after major mass shootings in the United States that the demand for purchasing guns at stores like Walmart–currently the nation’s largest gun retailer–suggests the appeal of gun-ownership as an assertion of responsibility.



United Artists

It is considerably scary, and incredible, that while convicted felons are prohibited by law from purchasing rounds of ammunition by law, no identity is required for purchasing gun ammunition.  Although the industry generated a $3 billion revenue that grew 8.9% from 2010-15, the United States government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sees no easy corelation between the sale of ammunition alone and the growing gun problems that increasingly plague the nation.

In an age of increased data-accumulation, data-selling, and data-compilations, this type of data–the clearest data to prevent the public circulation and availability of firearms and guns–seems off-limits.  Looking at the lay of the land, could this really be safe?


Gun Owners' Map


The image is truly daunting. A recent study from the Chicago Crime Lab suggests that rather than curtailing access to guns or their possession, preventing the public carrying of guns is a more critical deterrence to violence.  The study may have a valid point, but the question of where folks will gain their access to guns–or exposure to a culture of guns–forces us to go back to that question of all those red dots in the map above.  If many gangs may change their gun-carrying behavior in response to police pressure against illegal gun carrying, is the enforcement against carrying guns able to be sustained while respecting civil rights?  A study of illegal gun carrying indicates support for the potential effectiveness of this approach, but the ability to procure guns is at the same time a surer restraint against the ability to carry them.

Along these lines, Senator Mark Leno has introduced several bills in California to confiscate those guns that are illegally owned,  estimated at 40,000, using licensing fees for firearms, as well as of introducing mandatory background checks.  While the legal owners of guns are not necessarily tied to those not in legal possession, the widespread possession and acquisition of firearms in the country increases the risk of their illegal circulation, and to monitor whose hands they can enter.  This is a stab at offering a better mapping of the circulation, commerce, and traffic of firearms, if not to map their personal possession–and to map such possession onto the essentially populist claims of the protection of individual rights of gun ownership.


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Filed under data visualizations, datamaps, firearms in USA, Gun Control, gun-ownership, Gun-Related Deaths and Traffic-Related Deaths, Right to Bear Arms

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