The ripple effects of the Supreme Court decision last week striking down New York’s restrictions on carrying concealed handguns could pose a particular threat in Boston, which, while far from immune from gun violence, has fared much better than other cities its size at keeping shootings down.
With the year half over, 67 people were shot in Boston, seven fatally, according to the city’s Police Department. Four cities with populations comparable to Boston’s — Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; Las Vegas; and Portland, Ore. — had two to four times as many shootings, and six to 10 times as many fatalities, a Globe analysis found.
Guns are also more likely to be the cause of homicide in cities where gun laws are looser. Firearms were involved in 95 percent of homicides in Louisville this year, 81 percent in Nashville, and 73 percent in Las Vegas. In Boston, fatal shootings represent 50 percent of homicides this year.
While gun violence surged in major US cities during the pandemic, homicides and shootings in Boston declined last year and have fallen even further this year, according to police data. The striking difference points to the importance of gun restrictions and wide-ranging efforts by hospitals, community groups, and the police to reduce urban violence, specialists say.
“The overwhelming factor in violent deaths is access to guns,” said David Hemenway, a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and former head of the National Violent Death Reporting System. “In states where there’s easy access to guns, there are more gun homicides.”
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision, its most sweeping statement on the right of Americans to carry a gun in public, threatens gun safety restrictions in place in Massachusetts, which has consistently had among the nation’s lowest rates of firearm deaths.
“The data back up Boston’s focus on strong community partnerships and prevention strategies grounded in health and economic opportunity, but we know even one act of gun violence is too many,” Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement, adding that the city marshals resources from multiple departments to “work relentlessly” at violence prevention.
Boston Police Department spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle pointed to the joint efforts of district and specialized police units to track down illegal and unregistered weapons and “get guns taken off the streets.”
Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden, who joined community members recently in a Neighborhood Peace Walk through Dorchester, stressed the need to focus intervention efforts on the city’s youngest residents.
“We’re seeing guns in the hands of younger and younger kids — 13, 14, and 15,” he said. “The decisions these young people make endanger them and the communities around them.”
When predicting urban gun violence trends, academics also underscore the strong connection between gun violence and racial and economic segregation.
In Boston, gun violence disproportionately affects the Black community. Although Black residents make up less than a quarter of the city’s population, they represent more than 60 percent of shooting victims this year, according to Police Department figures. It was nearly 80 percent in 2021, police records show, and Black men were shot over seven times more often than Bostonians overall.
Researchers agree that myriad factors contribute to differing levels of gun violence among cities. But because shootings are often concentrated in low-income, racially segregated areas, comparatively wealthy cities like Boston, where such conditions are less widespread, typically see less gun violence, said Jonathan Jay, a Boston University public health professor whose research focuses on gun violence.
“Boston has low overall gun violence rates, but they are exactly what you would expect relative to the levels of racial [diversity] and economic privilege that Boston shows,” Jay said.
But in Boston and elsewhere, communities of color are consistently the most affected by high rates of poverty and other measures of disadvantage, which also correlate strongly with gun violence. “The evidence shows that people of color aren’t more inherently violent,” he said. Rather, “they are constantly exposed to adverse social conditions that bring about violence.”
While Massachusetts is lauded for its heavy restrictions on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity magazines, some of its stricter measures may now be at risk. Massachusetts is one of five states with laws similar to the one in New York struck down by the court, which give local government the discretion to decide who gets a gun permit; here, local police chiefs can deny someone a handgun license if they are determined to be unsuitable or not in need of one. And it remains difficult for law enforcement agencies to slow the influx of guns from states with fewer regulations.
“Laws have to be more stringent to prevent people from getting access to available guns too easily,” said Daniel Semenza, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. “Background checks, licensing and registration, red flag laws, all of these are an important part of the ‘Swiss cheese’ approach to policy that focuses on layering different precautions to close the loopholes.”
Comparing gun violence among cities is challenging because data collection isn’t uniform. Although the FBI collects data on violent crime from more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, those numbers do not distinguish between gun violence and crimes committed with other weapons. Many police departments do not track shootings at all.
Even fewer keep data on the demographics of gun violence victims. Boston is one of few cities its size to include demographic information with its shooting and violent crime statistics on a consistent basis, the Globe review found.
According to the BPD Shootings Dashboard, more than one-third of all shootings in the city happen in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood where the majority of the population is people of color. However, even in neighborhoods with majority-white populations, such as Brighton and Beacon Hill, Black residents are more often shot. In 2021, there was only one neighborhood in the city, the West End, where Black people did not make up at least half of all shooting victims in that area.
Jeffrey Butts, research director at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained that in communities with limited economic opportunity, selling drugs or other illegal goods can become “so attractive that people forgo traditional work to participate in the underground economy ... using firearms to protect themselves and their turf.”
“No one likes to be the second person to pull their gun out,” he said. “So the fear of getting shot turns into an incentive for people to arm themselves, and that can also increase violence.”
Though it’s too early to spot clear trends, this year marks a continuation of relatively low gun violence numbers in Boston after a spike in 2020. At this time last year, there were 81 shootings in Boston, including 12 fatalities. Yet in the first half of 2021, Portland had more than 120 shootings, and Nashville police recorded 232 shootings, including 39 fatalities.
By the end of 2021, Boston had 25 gun violence deaths, compared to 31 in Seattle, 82 in Nashville, and 169 in Louisville. And there were three mass shootings (four or more victims) in Boston last year, but none so far this year, according to Police Department data.
Academics say Boston’s approach to tackling gun violence — a combination of hospital-based and community-centered initiatives — has made a powerful difference. In addition to receiving medical treatment, gunshot patients at Boston Medical Center can access social services such as counseling or job training, which focus on addressing emotional trauma, as well improving the social and economic conditions that may have led to the shooting in the first place.
“It’s a strategy that has strong proven benefits in multiple cities, and Boston’s Violence Intervention Advocacy Program is one of the earliest examples of that,” Jay said. “BMC sees roughly 70 percent of the city’s gunshot injuries ... and their approach is founded on the idea that the moment after you’ve been injured is a time when you might be particularly receptive to social services.”
Semenza added that Boston’s continued expansion of neighborhood outreach programs is equally critical to successful trauma response and prevention.
“Gun violence interruption in Boston has always been about getting people already embedded in neighborhoods where violence happens to identify and warn the highest-risk individuals about the consequences of shooting,” he said, “and then help them find the incentives and access the services needed to get out [of those patterns] and stop the violence.”