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History helps explain the patterns of U.S. gun violence, says a Maine author

One of the maps showing national gun violence levels from the Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.
Nationhood Lab
One of the maps showing national gun violence levels from the Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.

Maine author Colin Woodard says America's long-ago past is at the heart of its present dispute over what to do about gun violence.

Woodard, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald, is current head of the Nationhood Lab at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.

He's written that the United States is really a collection of regional nations, formed by the immigrants who settled the country from the 1600s to the mid 1800s.

Maine author Colin Woodard
Colin Woodard
Maine author Colin Woodard

And as he told Maine Public's Irwin Gratz, those regions have measurably different rates of gun violence:

This interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Woodard: With each of these societies, there was this set of assumptions laid down about who we are, what is the good life, what's the relationship between individual liberty and the common good, between church and state, and so on, that were laid down by the initial founders as sort of the dominant assumptions and ethos. And that stayed, you know, it was built into a lot of institutions and into the religious framework and into the culture that the rest of us arrived to later and had to deal with as sort of the facts on the ground.

Gratz: Well, when it comes to gun violence, what did your analysis find?

We knew going into it that gun violence and indeed many indices of violence have enormous variations geographically. We discovered incredible variations, two- and threefold differences in the various indices. You know, we looked at overall gun deaths, we looked at gun suicides and homicides, we looked at just white victim gun homicides and suicides from one region to another, we looked at just cities, and so on.

And however you slice and dice it, you saw a two- and threefold difference between Yankeedom -- which is the greater New England space to which Maine belongs, but which spreads out over upstate New York, the old Western Reserve of Connecticut, in Ohio, and the upper Great Lakes states -- you know, two- and threefold safer than the Deep South.

And in terms of the Deep South and New Netherland -- that Dutch-settled area which is roughly analogous today to Greater New York City -- that Greater New York City is the safest place on this continent, by far, no matter how you look at it. It's seven-fold, eight-fold safer than the Deep South.

And there were some that were surprising, like in the far West, which is the interior West, but not the Pacific coastal strip, and not the areas in the Southwest that were effectively colonized by New Spain. So it's a big third of the continent. That region is actually quite safe in terms of gun homicides per capita, but incredibly bad in terms of gun suicides, which is not the pattern you see in other places, which opens up a whole another set of questions. Why is that?

[Woodard also addressed why some findings defied expectations, such as Black people seeming less safe in some northern cities.]

When you looked at Black victims in those big cities, New Netherland was still very safe. But suddenly the most dangerous places for gun homicide were the Left Coast and Yankeedom in the midlands. In other words, those northern regions that had previously been the safest. And in fact, the Deep South and Greater Appalachia suddenly became relatively safe. I don't know the whys of that. But when you looked at the map, you could see that the concentration of the problem, when sliced that way, was a select group of hotspot cities. In that sense, and in not very many other senses, the current Republican narrative about gun violence is correct, that there are cities like Chicago and Baltimore and Philly and Kansas City, and Oakland, that have these high rates.

But then again, there are other northern cities that don't, you know, Seattle, and Boston. Boston has a terrible history of racial segregation and discrimination. Why should Boston be safe and some of these other cities not? I'm sure there's a reason somewhere out there. If I were a gun researcher, I would wonder exactly these things.

So what does this tell us about the ability, or inability, of the country to do something about the level of gun violence that we see?

If you are in a federation governed by a federal government, where any kind of federal legislation has to occur with the consensus of Congress, which is carefully designed to make sure that no one region back in the early republic could dominate the other regions, so you have to have a massive consensus between regions. And guess what? The regions don't agree on any of this.

In greater Appalachia, in the Deep South, the solution to a mass shooting is to have more people have guns, whereas in Yankeedom and New Netherland, it's to have people perhaps have less access to all the, you know, cornucopia of armaments.

States can try to do their own gun control measures. But the current Supreme Court has had a number of rulings that make that more difficult, including ideas about the Second Amendment now having, after 2008, a individual right to carry firearms. That between the current interpretation of the meaning of the Second Amendment in our top courts and the lack of consensus in a consensus-seeking federal body, that makes it very difficult to have really the kind of changes that might make our gun homicide rates similar to our peer democracies. We're several decimal places different than the United Kingdom or Belgium or Japan and other countries. And it's because we have a different gun policy regime in that respect.