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Some Zip Codes More Deadly Than War Zones


Study puts risk of firearm death in perspective, calls attention to urgent need for violence reduction interventions.

The risk of firearm death in the US is on the rise: in 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults. Yet the risk is far from even—young men in some US zip codes face disproportionately higher risks of firearm-related injuries and deaths.

To better understand the magnitude of the gun violence crisis and put it in perspective, researchers at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania compared the risk of firearm-related death for young adult men living in the most violent areas in four major US cities with the risks of combat death and injury faced by US military personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq during active periods of war.

The results were mixed: The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that young men from zip codes with the most firearm violence in Chicago and Philadelphia faced a notably higher risk of firearm-related death than US military personnel deployed to wartime service in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the opposite was true in two other cities: The most violent areas in New York and Los Angeles were associated with much less risk for young men than those in the two wars.

In all zip codes studied, risks were overwhelmingly borne by young men from minority racial and ethnic groups, the study found.

“These results are an urgent wake-up call for understanding, appreciating and responding to the risks and attendant traumas faced by this demographic of young men,” says Brandon del Pozo, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine (research) at The Warren Alpert Medical School and an assistant professor of health services, policy and practice (research) at Brown’s School of Public Health.

Del Pozo conducts research at the intersection of public health, public safety, and justice, focusing on substance use, the overdose crisis, and violence. His recently released book, The Police and the State: Security, Social Cooperation, and the Public Good, is based on his academic research as well as his 23 years of experience as a police officer in New York City and as chief of police of Burlington, VT.

“Working as a police officer, I witnessed the toll of gun violence, and how disruptive it was for families and communities,” del Pozo says. “It stood out to me that the burden was not distributed evenly by geography or demographic. Some communities felt the brunt of gun violence much more acutely than others. By analyzing publicly available data on firearm fatalities in cities and in war, we sought to place that burden in sharp relief.”

At the same time, del Pozo says, he and the other study authors were responding to oft-repeated inflammatory claims about gun violence in American cities.

“We often hear opposing claims about gun violence that fall along partisan lines: One is that big cities are war zones that require a severe crackdown on crime, and the other is that our fears about homicides are greatly exaggerated and don’t require drastic action,” he says. “We wanted to use data to explore these claims—and it turns out both are wrong. While most city residents are relatively safe from gun violence, the risks are more severe than war for some demographics.”

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