Guns killed 1,315 Alabamians in 2021.
The state, with a population of 5 million, had 26.4 firearm deaths per 100,000 people that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That same year, New York State, with about 20 million people, reported 1,078 firearms deaths, a rate of 5.4 gun deaths per 100,000.
Alabama is not the most dangerous state in the nation when it comes to gun violence – that distinction belongs to Mississippi – but its death rate from firearms was the fourth-highest in the country in 2021, and its homicide rate (15.9 per 100,000) was the third-highest in the nation.
Other states larger than Alabama, including Washington state (7.8 million), Virginia (8.8 million people)and New Jersey (9.4 million people) had fewer gun deaths and lower firearm death rates than Alabama.
And by some measures, the violence is getting worse. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun safety advocacy group, the rate of gun deaths in Alabama increased 47% from 2011 to 2020, going from about 16 deaths per 100,000 people to almost 25 deaths per 100,000. The rest of the country saw gun death rates go up 33%.
The death rate for gun homicides in Alabama overtook the death rate for gun suicides for the first time ever in 2020 at about 11 deaths per 100,000 people. In other states, gun suicide death rates remain higher than homicide rates.
“That makes Alabama a little bit different,” said Kerri Raissian, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who studies gun violence.
How does a small state rank so high for gun violence?
Experts said Alabama’s permissive gun laws are a big factor. States such as New York and Massachusetts tend to have age limits on firearm purchases and stronger background check and gun permitting laws, particularly compared to southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. Poverty and a lack of social programs compared to other states also contribute.
“Guns are just really good at killing people,” Raissian said. “That is why people choose them, because they are good at killing people. When we reduce violence, we tend to reduce gun violence. It is very costly, in terms of trauma, in terms of taking lives, in terms of injury.”
The mass shooting in Dadeville on April 15, where four people were killed and 28 injured, led to calls for stronger gun laws, and some Democratic legislators filed gun safety bills after the shooting. Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, who has filed several gun safety bills, said the shooting gave an urgency to his efforts.
“Just from talking to residents in the district, majority Black and majority white neighborhoods, more affluent or working-class neighborhoods, the places that students of mine lived in, that was the biggest thing that came up during the campaign, was concern about gun violence and public safety,” he said.
But the Legislature will likely finish the 2023 session with few if any gun safety proposals getting through the body.
A tide of violence
There were 48,830 total gun deaths in 2021, according to research from the Pew Research Center. The numbers rose from 33,500 in 2014 to nearly 40,000 in 2017, then leveled off for a few years until the COVID-19 pandemic. A report from the Giffords Law Center published in 2022 said gun violence is not characteristically different than before. Gun violence did not spread to other areas of the country, the report said, but increased in the areas where gun violence has historically been problematic.
“Gun deaths have been rising,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel, and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center, an organization that researches solutions to reduce gun violence in the country. “It is not just your imagination.”
The report said social and economic disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the surge in gun violence.
“These changes to routine activities, combined with both historic and COVID-19-related trauma, may have created more opportunities for violence to occur people had new motivations to offend, they had easy targets, and they were cut off from capable guardians at their schools, community centers, and work,” the report states.
The number of guns has also increased. Trace estimates there are about 465 million guns in circulation in the U.S. In 2014, that number was slightly more than 300 million.
“Previous surges in gun purchasing, often in response to mass shootings or presidential elections, have been found to lead to increases in gun violence,” the report states. “However, the role of new firearm purchases in the recent increases in violence has not been as clearly demonstrated.”
Raissian said mass shootings are on the rise, but only reflect a fraction of the overall gun violence death rate. About 54% of gun deaths are suicides. About 43% of gun deaths are homicides, while 3% are classified as other, according to data taken from the Pew Research website.
Risk factors for gun violence
Some Americans are more vulnerable to gun violence than others.
“High violence areas are very poor, so they are very disadvantaged from a socioeconomic standpoint,” said Daniel Semenza, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at Rutgers University.
A report from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence published in 2020 said that high-poverty areas without resources, economic opportunity and a low rate of social mobility are at high risk from gun violence.
“What is creating both the higher rates and the higher risk of shootings, both in the shooter and being the victim, is the conditions in which the person is living in,” Semenza said.
People living in poor communities, with fewer economic opportunities, may more exposed to illegal economic activities, activities that often require the possession of a gun.
“Whether that is selling drugs or stealing cars, there are some ways to make money in the face of a lack of legal ways to do so, and a lack of educational opportunities to support that, is often going to lead toward activities that are accompanied by violence, which is accompanied by carrying guns.” Semenza said.
Effective gun laws
Effective gun laws generally lengthen the time between a person deciding to harm themselves or the public, and the moment they pull the trigger.
One set of laws focus on safe firearm storage. These have proven particularly effective at mitigating many gun-related deaths, particularly suicides.
“What we know is that the time between people deciding to kill themselves and end their lives, and then acting on it, is very short,” said Paul Nestadt, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Nestadt cited studies of researchers who conducted interviews of those who attempted suicide and survived. About 24% said that suicide ideation took five minutes while 87% told researchers they made the decision during the same day.
“What that means is that when you have those impulsive thoughts, suicidal thoughts, they might pass if given time,” Nestadt said. “But you use what you have available to you.”
Easy access to firearms creates the perfect storm, according to Nestadt.
“Overdoses make up more than half of all suicide attempts in this country,” Nestadt said. “However, overdoses only have about a 2% fatality rate. Whereas firearms, which only make up about 5% of suicide attempts, have a 90% fatality rate. Firearms are very, very lethal.”
If a firearm is secured, and a person with suicidal thoughts does not know the combination to access the weapon, then that person is forced to make an alternative, less lethal choice.
And even if that person can access the weapon, it takes time to do so.
“People are going to own guns,” Nestadt said. “This is America, but we have to really make sure that when there is a gun in the house, and there is someone vulnerable in the house … it is stored, locked, kept away from the ammunition.”
A 2019 study estimated that storage policies would prevent 6% and 32% of gun deaths. Another study published in 2004, using 1993 survey data, found that gun owners who safely stored their firearms were 60% less likely to die from gun related suicides.
Other laws try to remove a firearm from those who intend to do harm to themselves or others or make it difficult for them to acquire one.
Extreme risk protection orders, or red flag laws, are one such policy. Red flag laws allow firearms to be temporarily confiscated from people if a court or some other administration believes they are a threat to themselves or the public.
Raissian said research shows the laws “hold a lot of promise,” though the full impact of the statutes isn’t yet clear.
“We think they are being used appropriately, and we do think that they are averting gun deaths,” Raissian said. “It is just hard to say how many gun deaths because we don’t have great data on them.”
The order is temporary, until a hearing or another process can take place, to determine if a person is safe to have a weapon once again.
One study published in 2017 estimated that red flag laws prevent one suicide for every 10.6 guns removed from a people’s possession.
Other laws broadly apply to the public.
“More thorough background checks are very important and helpful,” said Robert Spitzer, an emeritus professor at the State University of New York, Cortland. “Permitting or registration requirements, that is when you actually have to go through a process normally tied to background checks to get a permit, a license, to get a gun.”
The checks discourage people from applying for a permit if they know they have information in their history that prevents them from getting one.
“From an economics point of view, how people choose to buy things, anything that puts barriers to buying things decreases the prevalence of that thing,” Nestadt said.
A 2019 brief published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a nonprofit research center for the State University of New York (SUNY) system, said universal background checks, concealed carry permits and laws prohibiting people who have committed violent misdemeanors reduce gun homicides.
“One policy that has come up against legal challenges recently has been not allowing people under the age of 21 years old to have certain guns or types of weapons,” Raissian said. “It is helpful. That age group has the highest risk of perpetuating homicides of any age group in the U.S.”
Social policies can also deter gun violence.
“It is laws, it is access to guns, it is also poverty,” Raissian said. “We have a lot of evidence that laws that you wouldn’t think have anything to do with gun violence, like Medicaid access, summer school for kids, employment opportunities for kids, are really good at reducing gun violence.”
Raissian cited a randomized controlled trial of a youth summer employment program that was established in Chicago that had reduced incidents of gun violence compared to a control group.
“It is not just about keeping them busy because these differences persist,” Raissian said. “It is also learning conflict resolution. It is also learning communication skills — all those things that come from employment and positive interactions tend to reduce violence of any form.”
But Raissian and Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, both said no single law will solve the issues of gun violence.
Reeher said older white males and teenagers have disproportionately high rates of suicide.
“You have to think very specifically about it,” Reeher said. “There is no one blanket policy that is going to say, ‘OK, this is going to reduce gun violence and it is going to apply equally to everybody.’ You have to think of the pockets and where the risk is.”
He added that interventions that have nothing to do with gun policy are what is needed. Additional funding and services to treat mental health, increasing connectedness to a community and criminal justice system resources that can target repeat offenders are potential solutions.
Gun violence by state
The severity of gun violence is also not felt equally everywhere. Southern states tend to see higher rates of firearm deaths than other parts of the country.
Massachusetts’ firearm death rate is 3.4 per 100,000 people, a rate rivaling some European countries. Many New England and Mid-Atlantic states also have low rates of gun deaths. Many of them implement policies that experts say are effective at reducing the number of gun deaths by either suicide or homicide.
The states with the lowest rates of gun deaths tend to have safe storage laws, strong gun registration and permitting and solid background checks. Many also require concealed carry permits.
One example is New York.
“New York has some of the strongest gun laws in the country,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor at State University of New York Oswego. “They (New York) still uphold an individual’s right to own firearms under the Second Amendment in conjunction with the Gun Control Act of 1968.”
In New York, a person must be at least 21 years old to own a handgun. A person buying a handgun must apply for a permit and submit to a background check. The applicant cannot have a felony conviction; must “possess good moral character” and not have had a fiream license revoked.
Applicants are subject to criminal and mental health background checks at the state and federal level even if they buy a gun at a gun show. The licensing office has options for approving licenses, which can be either for work or for home only, or an unrestricted permit to carry.
The permits must also be renewed every five years.
New Jersey requires all guns be stored unloaded and securely locked, with ammunition placed in a separate container.
Like other states with high rates of firearm deaths, Alabama has few state regulations on guns. Alabama has no age limits on the purchase of firearms and no red flag law allowing the confiscation of guns from people who may be a threat to others or themselves.
In the last several years, Alabama has loosened what gun restrictions were in the books. In 2013, the state expanded the places where a person could legally carry a concealed firearm. Last year, Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation allowing permitless concealed carry of firearms.
Gun safety in Alabama?
At least 20 firearm safety bills have been filed in the current session. Most come from Democrats. Ensler’s legislative package would establish a red flag law for people who pose a danger to themselves or others; prohibit firearm modifications that convert guns into automatic weapons; make it a felony to possess or distribute a firearm without a serial number; and create a voluntary do-not-sell list for firearms. Thus far, none of Ensler’s firearm related bills have yet to be heard.
Ensler, a native of New York, moved to Alabama in 2012 to join the Teach for America program. He worked at Robert E. Lee High School in Montgomery to teach social students for two years — a school with a significant Black population and a large percentage of lower-income students. Many had lost loved ones to firearms.
“Just having students who are coming to school having either, lost a relative or classmate to gun violence, having heard gunshots right in their neighborhood the night before and were up because of that, or had relatives who are locked up after having committed gun violence, that has shaped a lot of my views and feelings around it, he said.
Ensler said he acknowledges that there is the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution giving people the fundamental right to own a gun.
“I do firmly believe though that the language, ‘firmly regulated,’ means exactly what it means,” Ensler said.
HB 123, sponsored Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, would subject the parents of children who bring a gun to school to up to a year in jail. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill back in April, but it has not come out for a House vote.
Republicans have also filed some firearm bills. Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, sponsored SB 158, which requires a judge to send notice to the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency to update changes to the database prohibiting people from possessing firearms. Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, has filed legislation that removes the state sales tax from gun safes and safety devices.
HB 234, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, would also ban trigger activators. But in the waning days of the session, few proposals, even from Republicans, have any hope for consideration.
“It is overwhelmingly Republican and the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have a lot of sway, particularly in the Republican Party, ” said Fredrick Vars, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School who helped craft one of Ensler’s bills. “You usually see stricter gun laws in states that are either blue or at least purple, so it is just a real uphill battle in a Republican state.”
Wood said last week he is trying to work out a deal with the NRA and other gun rights groups on his trigger bill.
“We are here letting them know that we are not here to take their guns, we are here to make them safe,” he said.
Wood was confident they would pass — eventually. He was less sure if they would receive consideration in the current legislation, leaving room open in the future.
Rep. Ronald Bolton, R-Northport added that the state is a pro-gun rights state with little appetite for additional legislation related to gun control.
“I am against a red flag law because if you read back in history, people used to be able to put people in mental hospitals if they thought they were crazy,” he said.
Ensler understands it is going to be a heavy lift.
“Overall, I know it is going to be an effort and I am realistic that they are not all going to get passed this year,” Ensler said. “I am going to work in the offseason to try and get them ready for next year.”
Experts said taking away firearms from the public is a nonstarter.
“What is really worth noting, though, is that having a gun, carrying it in public, keeping it in the home, does not increase the likelihood that you will use the gun for any defensive purpose or that it will keep you safe for any event if anybody breaks into your home, which is an incredibly, incredibly, rare event,” Semenza said. “There is just not good evidence to show that it is keeping people safer. The evidence is the opposite, but if we need to tow the line in between, then it is about harm reduction, firearm safety, and doing things the right way.”
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