The 10 States With the Worst Gun Violence

June 17, 2016 by Thomas C. Frohlich

Man grabbing his pistol
Source: Thinkstock
An alarming number of high-profile mass shootings in the last decade, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook to Orlando, have reignited the debate over gun control in the United States. Studies have established a link between access to firearms and gun deaths — there tend to be more shooting fatalities in places with greater access to firearms. However, the best way to honor the Second Amendment while addressing the growing problem is far from clear.

The incidence of firearm-related deaths varies considerably across the country. In Hawaii, the state with the fewest gun-related fatalities, there were just 2.7 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2014. In Alaska, on the other hand, there were close to 20 gun-related deaths per 100,000 residents, the most of any state. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 states with the most gun violence based on the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks the number of gun-related deaths in each state. Fatalities include homicides, suicides, and accidents.

Firearms were used in 8,124 of the 11,961 murders in 2014, or in slightly more than two-thirds of all homicides. The next most common murder weapons are knives and cutting instruments, which were used in 1,567 homicides.

Click here to see the 10 states with the worst gun violence.

As the weapon of choice in 5,562 of the 8,124 gun murders, handguns are by far the most widely used murder weapon. By contrast, rifles such as the AR-15 — one of the best-selling rifles in the United States — were linked to 248 homicides, or 2.1% of all murders in 2014. Murder victims were twice as likely to be killed by hands, fists, and feet — which were linked to 660 murders in 2014 — as rifles.

Mass shootings, homicides, armed robberies, acts of self-defense, and other criminal or legal acts that can involve firearms are actually less common than the form of gun death that receives perhaps the least attention: suicide. Americans use guns to take their own lives about twice as often as they use guns to kill others. There were 21,334 suicides by gun in 2014, nearly double the 10,945 homicides by gun that year. Of all people killed with guns in 2014, 63.5% were suicides.

Numerous countries around the world have lowered gun deaths in recent decades by dialing up gun restrictions. In the United States, however, not only are legislative efforts to curb gun violence politically unfeasible, but past laws have also been largely ineffective.

For example, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, has been widely criticized for relying on arbitrary distinctions between weapons — so-called cosmetic features that do not increase the lethality of the weapon. As a result, gun manufacturers were able to redesign their weapons to meet legal requirements without sacrificing performance. So over the 10 years through 2004, a number of powerful rifles such as the AR-15, the model used in the Sandy Hook and numerous other shootings, were banned. However, similarly powerful weapons such as the Hi-Point 995, the model used to commit the Columbine massacre in 1999, were still available.

The question of whether certain types of weapons should be considered more dangerous than others — and banned as a result — has been left largely unanswered in the United States. Under current federal gun controls some weapons such as machine guns, silencers, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, as well as grenades are heavily regulated. Guns are also restricted on school property. Since the vast majority of U.S. gun owners use their weapons responsibly, the question of who is and who is not dangerous is also of utmost importance.

There are numerous reasons why passing gun legislation in the United States has been difficult. Not least of which is the lack of quality data and research into the causes and prevalence of gun violence. In 1996, after one CDC study found the presence of guns in households to increase the likelihood of violence, the NRA accused the CDC of advocating for gun control, calling it propaganda. As a result, Congress cut CDC funding by the amount dedicated to gun research at that time, and passed legislation which barred government-funded research organizations such as the CDC from advocating for gun control. Now, at risk of funding cuts and violating the rule, scientists shy away from any research that might be interpreted as advocating for gun control.

To determine the states with the most gun violence, 24/7 Wall St. examined 2014 firearm-related deaths data from the CDC. We also considered violent crime rates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2014 Uniform Crime Report. From the U.S. Census Bureau we reviewed poverty rates by state for 2014. Information on firearm policies for each state are from the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. Gun ownership rates for each state as of 2013 were obtained from a study published in 2015 from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. The number of licensed gun sellers per 1,000 business establishments for each state are current as of 2015 and came from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

These are the states with the most gun violence.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the weapon used in the Orlando shooting as an AR-15. A SIG Sauer MCX was used in the shooting, not an AR-15.    

10. Oklahoma
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
15.8 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 5,963 (23rd highest)
> Violent crime rate: 406.0 per 100,000 (14th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 16.6% (14th highest)

For every 100,000 Oklahomans, there were 15.8 firearm-related fatalities in 2014, the 10th highest gun death rate of all states. Like most states with high gun fatalities, gun regulations in Oklahoma are relaxed compared to other states. Despite the established correlation between fewer gun regulations and more gun deaths, guns in Oklahoma recently became even less regulated. In March, the Oklahoma House adopted legislation permitting gun owners to carry weapons openly without a license from the state. While owners still need to obtain a gun permit, they no longer need to receive safety training, according to the new rule.

9. South Carolina
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
15.9 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 7,228 (18th highest)
> Violent crime rate: 497.7 per 100,000 (7th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 18.0% (11th highest)

There were 15.9 firearm-related fatalities for every 100,000 South Carolinians in 2014, the ninth most of any state. As is the case across the nation, suicides compose the vast majority of gun deaths in South Carolina. Firearms were used in 479 suicides in the state in 2014, significantly more than the state’s 266 gun homicides. Still, South Carolina’s gun homicide rate of 5.5 per 100,000 residents is fourth highest in the nation.

Like most states with the most gun violence, South Carolina’s gun laws are not especially restrictive. Weak gun laws may partially explain the gun violence, and they certainly explain the gun trafficking. According to research from the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, the low level of gun control has led to South Carolina becoming a major source of illegal weapons.

8. Wyoming
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
15.9 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 972 (7th lowest)
> Violent crime rate: 195.5 per 100,000 (3rd lowest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: No
> Poverty rate: 11.2% (6th lowest)

Like all of the states with the highest gun death rates, Wyoming residents do not need a license or a permit to buy or own a long gun or a handgun, nor is registration required. Like just seven states in the nation, and just two on this list, Wyoming also does not require a permit to carry a handgun. As in most other states where it is relatively easy to acquire a weapon, a majority of Wyoming residents own a firearm, in contrast with the estimated national gun ownership rate of around one-third of Americans.

Compared with other states with the most gun deaths, Wyoming has an exceptionally low violent crime rate. At fewer than 200 incidents per 100,000 state residents, Wyoming’s violent crime rate is nearly the lowest in the country.

7. New Mexico
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
16.3 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 3,323 (19th lowest)
> Violent crime rate: 597.4 per 100,000 (4th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 21.3% (2nd highest)

New Mexico’s gun death rate increased only slightly in 2014 to 16.3 fatalities per 100,000 state residents from 15.6 per 100,000 state residents. The state’s violent crime rate, at nearly 600 incidents per 100,000 residents is fourth highest of all states. Violent crime tends to be higher along the U.S. border with Mexico due to clashes between rival drug gangs. According to government officials quoted in Albuquerque by local news outlets, gang activity in New Mexico has risen in recent years.

Gun violence is also tied to higher poverty rates. Not only can financial distress lead to violent behavior, but the cost of experiencing violence for children and adults can also reduce cognitive functioning, anxiety, and other outcomes that hinder personal well-being.

6. Arkansas
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
16.7 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 4,974 (24th lowest)
> Violent crime rate: 480.1 per 100,000 (9th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 18.9% (6th highest)

As is generally the case in states with the most gun violence, Arkansas has fewer gun restrictions, more guns, more gun sellers, and a higher incidence of violent crime than in most of the United States. The state does not require gun owners to obtain licenses, permits to carry rifles and shotguns, permits to purchase any weapon, or register their firearms. An estimated 57.9% of Arkansas residents own guns, the highest share of any state in the Southern United States and second of all states after Alaska. There are also 43 licensed gun sellers for every 1,000 business establishments in Arkansas, the second highest proportion of all states.

States with the highest gun death rates tend to also have high violent crime levels, and Arkansas fits this pattern. In 2014, there were 480 reported violent crimes for every 100,000 state residents, among the highest violent crime rates in the nation.

5. Montana
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
16.8 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 1,712 (12th lowest)
> Violent crime rate: 323.7 per 100,000 (25th lowest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 15.4% (22nd highest)

Nationally, suicides make up the vast majority of gun fatalities, and this is especially the case in Montana. Firearms were used in 14.6 suicides for every 100,000 Montana residents, trailing only Alaska for the highest firearm suicide rate in the country. Looking at all types of suicide, there are 23.7 suicides per 100,000 people in Montana, by far the highest in the nation. According to the Montana Department of Public Health, residents of small, isolated communities — which are common in large rural states such as Montana — are often more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. Firearms used for hunting are also more common in these areas, and the readily available option for people considering ending their life is attributed to higher suicide rates.

4. Alabama
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
16.8 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 8,730 (16th highest)
> Violent crime rate: 427.4 per 100,000 (12th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 19.3% (4th highest)

There is a strong correlation between gun violence and poverty. How exactly financial distress can lead to violent behavior is far from clear, but research has shown the two factors feed off each other in something of a vicious cycle. For instance, exposure to violence frequently causes anxiety and hinders cognitive functioning, both of which — for children in particular — can limit chances of success in life. Nearly one in every five people in Alabama live in poverty, a higher poverty rate than in all but a handful of states. The state’s gun fatality rate is fourth highest.

In addition to one of the nation’s highest gun fatality rates, Alabama also has one of the highest gun-ownership rates. Nearly half of adults in the state own a gun, third highest in the South and among the highest rates of any state.

3. Mississippi
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
18.3 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 5,603 (24th highest)
> Violent crime rate: 278.5 per 100,000 (17th lowest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: No
> Poverty rate: 21.5% (the highest)

Nationwide, suicides account for far more gun deaths than murders. Mississippi, however, is one of the few states where the number of homicides in 2014, at 259, exceeded the number of suicide gun deaths, at 251. The relatively high homicide rate in Mississippi is likely partially the result of the state’s nation-leading poverty rate of 21.5%. Not only is the likelihood of gun violence higher among financially unstable households, but also experiencing gun violence itself can lead to family instability, anxiety, and lowered cognitive functioning in children.

Black Mississippians make up nearly 40% of the state’s population. African Americans are far more likely than white Americans to live in poverty. Also, while suicides make up the vast majority of gun deaths among white people, homicides are by far the most common form of gun death among black Americans.

2. Louisiana
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
19.3 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 9,448 (13th highest)
> Violent crime rate: 514.7 per 100,000 (6th highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: Yes
> Poverty rate: 19.8% (3rd highest)

Like the nation, suicides account for the majority of gun deaths in Louisiana. However, homicides are not rare in the state. For every 100,000 state residents, there were nine gun-related homicides in 2014, the highest rate in the country. In addition to the state’s nation-leading murder rate, 122.5 robberies and 352.4 aggravated assaults were reported for every 100,000 people in Louisiana, each seventh highest compared with other states. These two types of crimes, while often not deadly, frequently involve weapons.

States with high levels of gun violence are also often among the poorest states in the country. Louisiana is no exception with a poverty rate of 19.8%, third highest of any state.

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1. Alaska
> Firearm deaths per 100,000 people:
19.7 per 100,000
> Total firearm deaths 2005-2014: 1,401 (10th lowest)
> Violent crime rate: 635.8 per 100,000 (the highest)
> Permit required to carry handgun: No
> Poverty rate: 11.2% (6th lowest)

With nearly 20 gun deaths per 100,000 state residents, Alaska leads the nation in gun fatalities. No different than is the case nationwide, Alaska’s suicide rate, at 15.6 per 100,000 residents, drives the state’s overall gun death rate. It is also the highest suicide rate of any state, and more than double the national rate of 6.7 suicides per 100,000 Americans. Violence more generally is also especially common in the state relative to its population. Alaska’s violent crime rate, which does not include suicide, is 636 incidents per 100,000 people — the highest in the country.

Like all of the states with the highest gun death rates, Alaskans do not need a license or a permit to buy or own a long gun or a handgun, nor is registration required. Like just seven states, and just two on this list, no permit is necessary to carry a handgun in Alaska.