Fact Sheet

Gun Violence in Rural America

While politicians and the media have largely focused their attention on gun violence in large cities, rural communities continue to see a rise in gun-related deaths.

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A man peers through the scope on his rifle in rural Texas.
A man peers through the scope on his rifle as night falls on a wheat field in rural Throckmorton County, Texas, on February 29, 2020. (Getty/Los Angeles Times/Brian van der Brug)

As gun violence continues to fuel violent crime across the nation, some conservative politicians are not only refusing to support commonsense gun violence prevention measures but are also actively rolling back gun laws that help make our communities safer. Many of these same elected officials continue to perpetuate the narrative that gun violence is only a problem in urban, Democrat-led cities, and media outlets are skewing the public perspective by heavily focusing on gun violence in cities such as Chicago. The truth, however, is that rural communities—particularly in red states—have increasingly faced levels of gun violence that match or outpace urban areas.

Rural communities are experiencing high rates of gun violence

  • From 2016 to 2020, the two U.S. counties to experience the most gun homicides per capita were rural:* (see Figure 1)
    • Phillips County, Arkansas: 55.45 age-adjusted homicides per 100,000 people
    • Lowndes County, Alabama: 48.36 age-adjusted homicides per 100,000 people**
  • From 2016 to 2020, 13 of the 20 U.S. counties with the most gun homicides per capita were rural: (see Figure 1)
    • 80 percent of these 20 counties are in states that received an “F” grade for their weak gun laws, according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s 2021 annual state scorecard rankings.
  • In 2020, the total gun death rate for rural communities—when age-adjusted per 100,000 people—was 40 percent higher than it was for large metropolitan areas.

Figure 1

Media attention on large cities misrepresents the reality of gun violence in the United States

  • Despite negative media attention, many large cities are proportionately safer from gun violence than their rural counterparts:
    • Chicago is within Cook County, which ranks 79th for firearm homicide rates.
    • Philadelphia County ranks 38th for firearm homicide rates.
    • The five counties that encompass New York City rank between 360th and 521st for firearm homicide rates:
      • New York County (Manhattan) ranks 521st.
      • Kings County (Brooklyn) ranks 404th.
      • Bronx County (Bronx) ranks 360th.
      • Richmond County (Staten Island) ranks 488th.
      • Queens County (Queens) ranks 502nd.
    • Los Angeles County ranks 316th for firearm homicide rates.

Southern and Midwestern states with loose gun laws and large rural populations have contributed to a rise in gun homicides

  • Southern and Midwestern states—such as Arizona, Arkansas, and Missouri—have drastically contributed to the more than 100-fold relative increase in gun homicide rates from 2014 to 2019:
    • Rural areas in Arizona and North Carolina have outpaced their large metropolitan counterparts; in fact, gun homicide rates in rural Arizona were 14 percent higher than they were in the state’s large metropolitan areas from 2016 to 2020. (see Figure 2)
    • Gun homicide rates in rural North Carolina were 76 percent higher than they were in large North Carolina metropolitan areas from 2016 to 2020. (see Figure 3)

Figure 2

Figure 3

  • Many of the Southern states where gun violence has spiked have weaker gun laws, according to Everytown for Gun Safety:
    • Among all 50 states, Arizona ranks 43rd in gun safety law strength and saw about 1.5 times as many firearm-related homicides as the average state from 2014 to 2019.
    • Arkansas ranks 47th and saw about 1.6 times as many firearm-related homicides as the average state from 2014 to 2019.
    • Missouri ranks 41st and saw about 1.6 times as many firearm-related homicides as the average state from 2014 to 2019.
    • North Carolina ranks 21st and saw about 1.25 times as many firearm-related homicides as the average state from 2014 to 2019.

Gun ownership rates among rural citizens are higher than they are in urban areas, which can lead to increased gun violence

Rural gun violence further stresses local law enforcement and prosecutors

  • A report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that many rural police feel they lack resources to handle current issues such as gun violence:
    • Many rural police leaders noted that unlike larger departments, the lack of dedicated or skilled grant writers hurts their funding prospects; more specifically, application length and requirements were cited as large concerns.
  • Rural prosecutors and law enforcement have voiced their hardships trying to manage an increase in gun-related deaths.

Conclusion

Gun violence continues to damage the lives of citizens across the nation, but our political leaders have the ability to prevent the senseless losses of lives. Unfortunately, pro-gun political leaders have failed to enact commonsense gun violence prevention measures that can save lives and have actively made it easier for guns to fall into the wrong hands. It is easy for these same leaders and the media to criticize urban, Democrat-led counties, but the truth is that rural communities within several Republican-led states have experienced a level of gun homicides that matches or outpaces that of their urban neighbors. It is time for political leaders to show their constituents that their lives matter and push for commonsense gun laws.

*Authors’ note: This analysis uses the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of “rural” and “urban.”

**Authors’ note: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Age-adjusting the rates ensures that differences in incidence or deaths from one year to another, or between one geographic area and another, are not due to differences in the age distribution of the populations being compared.”

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Authors

David Correa

Research Assistant

Nick Wilson

Senior Director

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