Guns Are Killing Young Black People in Rural America, Too

A combination of limited opportunities, lax gun laws and a sense of hopelessness are likely causes for increasing gun deaths among young Black people in rural enclaves and small towns. (Credit: Luka Lajst from Getty Images Signature).

This article was originally published on Word In Black.

By Jennifer Porter Gore


The scourge of gun violence, the leading cause of death for Black youths under 21, is a growing problem for small towns and rural areas that don’t get as much attention — or resources.


When the subject of gun violence in Black communities comes up, what usually comes to mind are images of big-city streets and apartment housing  — not rural communities. 

But several studies show that the sharp rise in Black victims of gun-related deaths in recent decades is happening in rural areas and small towns, mostly in the Deep South. Since 2018, the data show, Black youth in rural areas have been dying from firearms as often as their urban peers.

Of the 20 towns and cities with the highest rates of shootings, more than half were in the South, home to a majority of Black Americans. Between 2013 and 2024, studies show, the rate of gunshot victims in places like Alabama and Mississippi was six times higher than in cities like New York or Los Angeles.

David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, ties the violence directly to the nation’s embrace of guns and legislation protecting gun manufacturers. 

“At the federal level, our gun laws are now much weaker than they were in 1999. We eliminated the assault weapons ban,” says David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We gave the gun industry incredible protections against lawsuits. I don’t know of any other industry that is so well protected against tort liability.” 

Research has tied high rates of rural gun violence to a range of factors, from lack of opportunity to lax gun laws. But Black residents have also seen their communities slowly disappear, adding to a sense of hopelessness. 

“High rates of violence are often a symptom of a larger root cause, and I always go back to economic development,” Stacy Grundy, a public health practitioner who has studied rural communities, told The Trace, a nonprofit news website reporting on gun violence. “Most of the kids who are interested in college move away and do not return because there is not an industry to return to, and the economic opportunities for the young people who stay are now foregone.”

Firearm injuries, including homicides, suicides, and unintentional injuries, were the leading cause of death among children and teens ages one to 19 in 2020 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  And a disproportionate number of those youths were Black.

Data from the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks both gun injuries and deaths, shows that half of all shootings between 2014 and 2023 occurred in small cities and towns of fewer than 1 million people. As analyzed by The Trace, 13 of those 20 towns and cities with the highest rates of shootings were in the South. 

The states with the highest rates of shooting fatalities and injuries per 100,000 residents were Louisiana, Illinois, Mississippi, and Alabama, GVA reports. The states with the lowest rates were Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Maine.

A recent University of Minnesota published in the New England Journal of Medicine echoed these findings. For their study, the research team examined CDC from 1999 to 2022 and found firearm-related deaths among all youth rose by 35% —with a disproportionate increase among Black youth. 

That tracks, Hemenway says, given some states’ decision to expand access to guns during the last two decades. 

While a mere 4% of the world’s population lives in the U.S., it accounts for 35 percent of global firearm suicides and 9 percent of global firearm homicides. Black people are 12 times more likely than whites to be killed in a gun homicide. Gun control laws have weakened in the past 25 years, and there’s little indication this will change. 

“In the last 25 years, [the U.S.] gun homicide rate has increased 70%. Our gun suicide rate has increased 33%. We used to be a real outlier compared to all the other high-income countries,” Hemenway adds. “We had much higher rates of gun deaths per capita than any other high-income country. 

‘Over the last 25 years, our gun fatalities have increased dramatically while other high-income countries, on average, have reduced their gun death rates. We’re now even more of an outlier,” he says. 

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