In most times and places, crime tends to be a highly localized phenomenon. I have covered this for Mises.org at the national level, pointing out that homicide rates in, say, the Mountain West and New England are far lower than homicide rates in the Great Lakes region or the South. Gun-control laws clearly don't explain these differences, since many places with rock-bottom homicide rates such as Idaho and Maine also have few controls on private gun ownership.
Thus, discussion of the "US homicide rate" tells us precious little about general trends since US homicide rates are kept relatively high by only a small number of cities. Baltimore city, for example, has a homicide ten times higher than the nation overall, and seventeen times larger than the Baltimore suburbs. In 2018, Baltimore reported more than three hundred homicides while similarly sized Denver reported about 67. These are huge differences.
Clearly, speaking generally of homicides as a problem in the United States or even in the State of Maryland tells us little about conditions experienced by most of the population in these places.
Given the very low homicide rates that prevail throughout most of the US, it is clear that enormous swaths of the US population are able to obtain, own, and use firearms freely without turning their cities and towns into war zones.
Given the recent drive for more gun control in the state of Virginia, it may be helpful to look and see whether homicides are a general problem for Virginians or limited to only certain parts of the state.
Regional Differences in Homicides in Virginia
In 2018, the homicide rate in Virginia was 4.6 per 100,000. That's below the national rate of 5 per 100,000, but is well above that of many states such as Iowa, Utah, and Minnesota.
But, of course, homicides are not spread evenly across Virginia. As with many other states, homicide rates are far higher in some cities and metro areas than in others.
For example, according to the FBI's 2018 crime statistics, the homicide rate in the city of Richmond (i.e., not the overall Richmond metro area) was nearly five times higher, with 22.9 homicides per 100,000 people. But among cities with more than 10,000 people, the highest rate was found in Petersburg, which in 2018 had a homicide rate nearly ten times that of the state overall, with 45 homicides per 100,000. Other especially violent cities (proportionally speaking) were Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Newport News, and Hampton. These can be contrasted with some large cities with very few homicides, including Charlottesville and Virginia Beach.
And, of course, the FBI report lists more than one hundred Virginia cities—ranging in size from 300 to 44,000 residents—with zero homicides.
What would homicide rates look like in Virginia without some of these cities?
Well, according to the FBI's report, there were 391 total homicides in Virginia in 2018. Of those, 122 were in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metro area, and 100 were in the Richmond metro area. These two metros alone contributed more than half (57 percent) of all the state's homicides. Combined, these two metros (which amount to only 2.9 million of the state's 8.5 million residents) had more homicides than all the rest of the state.
By removing just these two metro areas from Virginia, the homicide rate for the remainder of the state would be reduced from 4.6 per 100,000 to 3 per 100,000.
Since Democrats won a majority in both houses of the state legislature last election day, legislators have begun to push through new restrictions on gun ownership in Virginia. Proposals include limiting the number of guns bought per month, a ban on "assault" weapons, and so-called red flag laws.
Supporters insist the laws are necessary for the safety of residents statewide. But it is unclear that the issue of homicides in Virginia ought to be addressed by statewide policies.
The new push for gun control in the state has been pushed largely by advocates claiming the new measures are necessary to prevent shootings like the 2019 Virginia Beach mass shooting. It is unclear why any of the proposed rules would address the factors behind the Virginia Beach shooting given that the shooter had no criminal record. Moreover, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of homicides in the state are ordinary homicides tied to specific areas and municipalities—and the conditions therein.
If policymakers wish to address these issues, it is not at all clear why general statewide legislation would provide any solutions. After all, as we have discovered in a great many local governments, policies tends to focus on nonviolent crime, with most resources devoted to petty drug enforcement or similar infractions. In Baltimore, for example, the police department assigns less than three percent of its police force to homicide investigations. Yet, this sort of neglect by city personnel has been shown to be a key factor in fostering an environment of lawlessness.
Moreover, since we have no data on how often firearms are used to deter crime, it is impossible to know what the likely effect of additional prohibitions on legal gun ownership will be.
Not surprisingly, however, state lawmakers have taken the easy way out. Rather than address the serious and unexciting steps necessary to truly address violence at the local level, policymakers have opted to do the politically expedient thing and pass statewide laws designed to pander to specific interest groups. Whether or not these laws have the desired effect, of course, is politically unimportant. Some politicians have decided that it is "worth it" to burden much of the state's population—millions of whom own firearms without ever using them for violent ends—with a wide array of new regulations that could render many residents criminals for owning devices which had been purchased legally in the recent past.