Using Statistics and a Scientific Approach to Address Rural and Urban Gun Violence

Gun violence has become a more pervasive problem over the last few years, and community collaborators are turning to public health methods to find effective solutions. Though public health has not been consistently prioritized as the primary framework used to address gun violence, its application with car safety clearly demonstrated its efficacy in reducing those types of fatalities. Public health helped revolutionize safety within the auto industry and saved countless lives. With a renewed flow of funding for gun violence research, the scientific approach holds promise to have a similar positive effect on gun violence.

Here we’ll review the public health approach and how it applies to gun violence. Then we’ll discuss key differences between rural and urban gun violence trends. Finally, we’ll explore how a localized approach with scientific evidence can lead to more targeted and effective strategies.

How public health can impact gun violence 

Public health aims to promote healthy outcomes and reduce and prevent injury, illness, or other harms at a population level. Scientific methods and evidence-based data are used to create and implement strategies and evaluate outcomes. The public health approach is used to improve outcomes for infectious diseases and is appropriate for addressing gun violence as well.

  • Define and measure the problem
  • Determine the cause or risk factors
  • Determine how to prevent or improve the problem
  • Implement strategies
  • Evaluate outcomes

The public health approach has already been used to address gun violence with some positive results. But a gap in access to federal research funds has made this challenging over the last two decades. With that gap now closing, relevant and recent research findings can add to other essential information gathered during this period. This data is critical to the public health goal of harm prevention as it applies to gun violence.

One key area of focus is the difference between rural and urban gun violence statistics. Even with a shortage of research studies on gun violence since 1996, concerning trends in rural and urban communities have become apparent. We’ll explore these trends and how a scientific approach can impact gun violence through community collaborations.

Gun violence within rural and urban populations

The harms of gun violence are seen in every corner of the country, and both gun homicide and suicide rates have seen increases in recent years. But the impact differs significantly between rural and urban communities. Despite many of the alarming headlines coming from urban areas, gun violence affects a smaller proportion of the population than in rural areas. Urban residents are far less likely to own guns, while rural social and cultural norms are accepting of gun ownership. Here we’ll dive into more of these differences to create a more accurate picture of gun violence outcomes. 

Rural and suburban trends

Rural-urban comparison of gun violence outcomes

  • Injury and death: Accidental injuries and fatalities are more common in rural areas, as well as more completed gun-related suicides. Researchers suggest that these outcomes may be due to broader access to firearms and lower access to immediate trauma care.
  • High lethality suicide method: Guns have the highest lethality of all suicide methods at 89.6%, meaning that nine out of ten attempts using a firearm are fatal. This is highly concerning, especially in rural areas where firearm use is the most common method. In contrast, both urban and national suicide rates using any method have been consistently lower than in rural communities. 
  • Intimate Partner Violence (IPV): Women are five times more likely to be killed when experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) when their abuser has access to a gun. When considering that IPV is also more prevalent in rural areas, the trend of increased gun violence in rural areas adds additional risk for women in those communities.
Addressing gun violence: The scientific approach and localism

Many times, conversations about curbing gun violence become polarized. This often results in one-size-fits-all suggestions that overlook important differences between rural and urban areas. A close look at statistical data shows why this approach may be ineffective. Stark differences often exist within states, such as Texas, with vast rural regions and several large urban areas. Minimizing the impact of these differences makes it challenging to create effective strategies. 

The scientific approach used when creating public health strategies helps avoid some of this division by moving through an established process. And with a wave of new research studies supported by recently improved access to federal funding, updated information is becoming more plentiful.

Here are some of the ways the public health approach can effectively address gun violence:

  • Community partners can create more effective strategies by thoroughly understanding the problem and using valid, reliable information. Both localized and large-scale strategies are needed to reduce gun violence, and building a scientifically sound foundation can keep these pathways on track.
  • Because public health strategies depend heavily on collaboration, good communication and local input must be prioritized. This puts positive pressure on multiple systems to work together for common goals. 
  • Public health initiatives can be used to push for legislative change, such as with car safety. A localized approach to gun violence laws, also called firearm localism, can help shape laws or policies intended to reduce gun violence while incorporating community priorities. 
  • Neighborhood-based approaches to gun violence reduction are well suited to public health strategies, an opportunity well-suited to public health strategies. Studies on this place-based approach show that neighborhood improvements are cost-effective and associated with reduced gun-related violence and criminal activity.
Reducing Gun Violence With the Scientific Approach: A Foundation for Progress

Gun violence is a multifaceted issue that impacts many aspects of public health and community safety. The scientific grounding of the public health approach ensures that community collaborators stay focused on accurate data and reliable processes. While gun violence won’t be improved overnight, positive change can be made. The public health approach offers a solid foundation for progress with gun violence over the long haul.