Republicans claim Democrats can’t keep us safe – crime data disagrees

<span>Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA</span>
Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
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Be it congressional campaigns or defending Donald Trump from his many legal entanglements, Republicans have kept up a consistent message to the US: Democrats can’t be trusted to keep you safe.

Alvin Bragg … is going after President Trump when you have all kinds of things happening in his town that are harmful to families who live there,” Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s top allies in Congress, said on Fox News after the Democratic Manhattan prosecutor in March indicted Trump for allegedly falsifying business records. Jordan, who chairs the House judiciary committee, appeared to be ignoring data that shows New York is one of the safest cities in the country.

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As the Covid-19 pandemic upended the American economy and day-to-day life in 2020, homicides shot up by 30%, the largest one-year jump on record. Republicans used that spike, along with broader crime concerns, as a cudgel against Democrats to successfully regain control of the House of Representatives two years later.

But Third Way, a center-left thinktank, has found that states which voted for Trump in the 2020 election had overall higher murder rates than those which supported Joe Biden. This trend, called the “red state murder gap”, has been consistent for 20 years. The pattern remains the same even if the most populous county in each red state is excluded – undercutting an argument common on the right that large cities, which tend to be led by Democrats, are to blame for homicides.

“There’s a narrative out there that the crime problem is a blue states, blue city crime problem,” said Jim Kessler, Third Way’s executive vice-president for policy and an author of the study. “We thought, ‘OK, let’s challenge that, let’s see if it’s true.’ And it’s not.”


What’s harder to tease out is why this split exists, and even the degree to which political factors are to blame for it. Many of the worst-affected states are in the south, a region that has had historically higher murder rates. And though crime may be a national political issue, in reality, local authorities such as mayors and police officials often have the most powerful roles in ensuring public safety.

“I think it’s very difficult to put a partisan spin on this,” said Jeff Asher, a co-founder of AH Datalytics, which tracks criminal justice data. “I think that you can maybe say that places with state legislatures that are not focused on finding effective solutions to gun violence, you could place that blame on them. But generally … gun violence is local, and it’s usually local causes rather than statewide or federal causes.”

Before Mississippi overtook it in 2019 and 2020, Louisiana led the nation in homicides per capita from 2000 to 2018, with its most populous city, New Orleans, ranking among the most murder-plagued in the nation. Asher, who lives in the city, blamed that on a range of factors, from the police department’s failure to solve many homicides to a lack of employment and educational opportunities there.

And while Louisiana’s electoral votes have gone to Republicans in every election since 2000, it currently has a Democratic governor and was viewed as a blue state in the 1990s, as were many other southern states that are now considered Republican strongholds.

“These issues were here in the 90s, when Louisiana was voting twice for Bill Clinton. These issues have not suddenly become issues,” Asher said.

When Nick Suplina, the senior vice-president for law and policy at the gun violence prevention organization Everytown for Gun Safety, looks at the states leading the country’s homicide rate, he sees a map reflecting loose gun laws. Firearms were used in almost 80% of homicides in 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, but in much of the south, state legislatures are controlled by Republicans who have in recent years made it easier to buy a gun, and carry it where one pleases.

“When you’re seeing homicides rates going up, in 2020, for instance, that’s driven by gun homicides, that’s driven by easy access to firearms, predominantly by people who shouldn’t have access to firearms,” Suplina said. “And so, really, what you’re seeing in this study isn’t so much about politics or voting proclivities, but, rather, what states have strong gun laws and what states have weak ones.”

Third Way’s study covers the 2000-2020 time period, during which the National Rifle Association pushed state lawmakers to remove or oppose regulations over firearm background checks, permitting and safe storage. Many states also have preemption laws on the books that prevent mayors from enacting tighter gun legislation within their city limits.

And even when states pass stricter gun laws, they are easily skirted. “Our gun laws are only as strong as the weakest gun laws of a neighboring state,” Suplina said. “We have porous state borders in this country. And so in states like Illinois, and specifically with respect to Chicago, most of their crime guns are starting in Indiana and quickly making their way across the border.”

There are signs that the pandemic-era wave of murders has crested. Statistics from AH Datalytics indicate murder rates in 90 US cities until the end of May have fallen by about 12% year on year, including in New York City, where Jordan convened a hearing of the judiciary committee into the city’s purported crime problem shortly after Bragg brought his charges against Trump.

“If chairman Jordan truly cared about public safety, he could take a short drive to Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron or Toledo in his home state, instead of using taxpayer dollars to travel hundreds of miles out of his way,” Bragg’s office said in a statement before the hearing convened, referring to cities in Jordan’s home state that all have higher murder rates than New York.