PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In certain U.S. cities, young men are over three times more likely to be shot dead than American soldiers deployed to war zones in the Middle East, new research reveals.
Compared to the risk of combat death U.S. soldiers face in Afghanistan, the findings show that young men living in the most violent zip code of Chicago have a 3.23 times higher average risk of firearm-related homicide. Scientists say their shocking findings put the risk of firearm-related death in perspective. They’re calling for urgent policy action to reduce violence.
In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death among children, teenagers, and young adults in the United States. However, young men in some U.S. zip codes face disproportionately higher risks of gun-related injuries and death.
Which cities are the worst for gun violence?
Researchers at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania compared the risk of death for young adult men living in the country’s most violent areas in four major cities with the risks of combat death and injury for U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq during active periods of war.
The findings, published in JAMA Network Open, reveal that young men from zip codes with the highest levels of firearm violence in Chicago and Philadelphia faced a “notably higher risk” of gun-related death than troops deployed during wartime in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the opposite was true in two other cities. The most violent areas in New York and Los Angeles saw much less risk for young men than those in the two war zones. In all zip codes studied, the risks were overwhelmingly higher among young men from minority racial and ethnic groups.
“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, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, in a media release.
A police officer’s perspective
Dr. del Pozo recently released a book called “The Police and the State: Security, Social Cooperation, and the Public Good” — 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, Vermont.
“Working as a police officer, I witnessed the toll of gun violence, and how disruptive it was for families and communities,” del Pozo explains. “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, Dr. 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,” the study author continues. “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.”
Chicago is worse than most war zones
The researchers obtained information on all fatal and non-fatal shootings of 18 to 29-year-old men recorded as crimes in 2020 and 2021 in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia — the four largest cities which have public data available on shooting deaths and injuries.
The team aggregated those figures to the zip code level and linked them to corresponding demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. The researchers also acquired wartime combat-related death and injury counts for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This covered the years 2001 to 2014 for the war in Afghanistan and 2003 to 2009 for the war in Iraq.
Overall, the analysis included 129,826 young men residing in the four cities considered by the study.
Results show that, compared to the risk of combat death faced by U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan (the more dangerous of the two wars), young men living in the most violent zip code of Chicago were 3.23 times more likely to die from gun violence. Those in Philadelphia faced a 1.9 times higher average risk of firearm-related homicide.
Singling out the elevated dangers faced by a U.S. Army combat brigade in Iraq, the young men studied in Chicago still faced “notably greater” risks, and the ones faced in Philadelphia were similar to the Middle East war zone.
However, the team did not observe the same level of risk in the most violent zip codes of Los Angeles and New York. Young men faced a 70-percent to 91-percent lower risk than soldiers in the Afghan war across fatal and non-fatal categories.
Minority communities shoulder the entire burden
When the researchers looked at the demographics of the young men in the zip codes under investigation, they found that the risk of violent death and injury was almost entirely tied to individuals from minority racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic males represented 96.2 percent of those who were fatally shot and 97.3 percent of those who experienced non-fatal gun injuries across all four cities.
“Exposure to combat has been associated with stress-inducing hypervigilance and elevated rates of homelessness, alcohol use, mental illness and substance use, which, in turn, are associated with a steep discounting of future rewards,” the researchers write.
“Our findings — which show that young men in some of the communities we studied were subject to annual firearm homicide and violent injury rates in excess of 3.0% and as high as 5.8% — lend support to the hypothesis that beyond the deaths and injuries of firearm violence, ongoing exposure to these violent events and their risks are a significant contributor to other health problems and risk behaviors in many U.S. communities.”
Dr. del Pozo says that the health risks are likely even higher for people in cities, because they need to face their “battles” every day over a lifetime, as opposed to military personnel in a tour of duty in Afghanistan, which typically lasted 12 months.
“The findings suggest that urban health strategies should prioritize violence reduction and take a trauma-informed approach to addressing the health needs of these communities,” del Pozo concludes.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.