Poverty and Gun Violence

From  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 1st ed. 2002). 

By David B. Kopel

Lower income levels are associated with higher levels of gun crime perpetration and victimization, and with lower levels of gun ownership.

By a very wide margin, the highest rates of firearms crime in the United States are found in inner cities. Scholars have long debated whether poverty itself is a cause of crime, or whether poverty and crime are both caused by other factors--such as low education, bad work habits, substance abuse, family breakdown and fatherlessness, and/or other social pathologies.

Whatever the effects of poverty at a given point in time, changes in poverty rates appear unconnected from changes in gun crime rates. For example, the 1920s were a period of rising prosperity, while the 1930s suffered through the Great Depression. Although statistics are sketchy, gun crime apparently rose in the 1920s, and fell in the 1930s; the effects of alcohol prohibition in causing gun crime (by stimulating turf wars among bootleggers) were apparently quite strong, and thus when prohibition was repealed in 1933, the homicide rate began to fall sharply, notwithstanding the economic distress.

In the 1960s, incomes rose substantially, and so did gun crime. Crime rates continued to increase until 1980, even as stagflation (increased unemployment plus inflation) slowed the economy. In the early 1980s, the nation entered a recession, but gun crime rates began to fall, and continued to fall during the mid-1980s boom. A sharp intensification of the drug war in the late 1980s was accompanied by sharp increases in gun crime; these increases were reversed in the early 1990s, and gun crime rates fell for rest of the decade, during another economic boom.

Like gun crime, gun ownership appears to be little affected by changing economic circumstances. American gun ownership has increased from approximate 34,000 guns per 100,000 population in 1946 to about 95,000 guns per 100,000 people in 1999, with increases showing little relation to economic conditions. The periods with the fastest rate of increase have tended to be periods when concerns about crime or gun control were most intense.

Gun ownership rates are highest in the American middle class, somewhat lower for high income levels, and lower still for persons with low incomes.

For persons with annual incomes of less then $10,000, the gun ownership rate is 22%. For incomes of $10,000 to $19,999, the rate is 25%. For incomes 20,000-29,999, the rate is 36%. For incomes 30,000-39,999, the rate is 42%. For incomes 40,000-49,999, the rate is 47%. For incomes 50,000-59,999, the rate is 51%. For incomes $60,000-69,999, the rate is 47%. For incomes above 80,000, the rate is 37%.


For Further Reading: Tom W. Smith, 1998 National Gun Policy Survey of the National Opinion Research Center: Research Findings, National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, May 1999 Report (Demographics of gun owners).

See also: African-Americans and Gun Violence, Alcohol and Gun Violence, Racism and Gun Control

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