DyShieka Whitlow, 23, holds her sons Terry Jr., 2, and Terrell, 8 months. Whitlow lost her husband, Terry Whitlow, last year when he was shot to death outside of their home/The Tennessean
DyShieka Whitlow heard the gunshots outside her Nashville home
one day last year as she and her little boy tried to sleep. But she
never imagined her husband would be dying on their front lawn.
"I was in shock," she said. "It couldn't be him."
Terry Whitlow died Aug. 20, 2010, at the hospital, one of at least 356 people murdered in Tennessee last year.
"Everywhere you look, someone is getting gunned down," his widow said. "Senseless crime. It's just sad."
DyShieka Whitlow is seeing is reflected in a disturbing trend over the
past two years in Tennessee: People were more likely to be victims of a
violent gun crime here than in any other state in the nation, according
to a Tennessean analysis of FBI
statistics. Only Washington, D.C., had a higher rate of gun violence.
Tennessee came out worst in the nation in the rate at which its
residents are victims of aggravated assaults with a firearm and
fifth-worst in robberies.
The federal government defines
aggravated assault as an attack that inflicts severe bodily injury and
is usually done with a weapon likely to produce death or great bodily
The high rate is difficult to explain. Officials at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation declined to comment, saying they didn't collect that data and couldn't comment on analysis the agency hadn't performed.
Academia doesn't offer much help, either.
would almost have to go in and look at every individual crime report
across the nation," said Don Green, executive director of the University
of Tennessee's Law Enforcement Innovation Center.
But Green offered three possibilities for the high rate: better police reporting, a large number of gang and drug-related crimes, or perhaps Tennessee's high rate of gun ownership.
thing you could say would be if there are a number of firearms
accessible to individuals, then they would be more inclined to use those
during a heated argument," Green said.
The idea reflects a longstanding debate between Second Amendment
and gun control advocates. Research has shown some correlation between
states with high gun ownership and high gun-related crimes. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center,
in particular, has published multiple studies showing that people
living in areas with more guns are more at risk of being homicide
The Violence Policy Center,
a Washington, D.C.-based research group that advocates for stronger gun
control, in 2008 linked Tennessee's high gun ownership to its high
homicide rate. It has also ranked Tennessee high in recent years in
black homicides and cases in which women have been killed by men.
Second Amendment advocates are quick to point out that just because gun
ownership and some violent crimes seem to coincide, it doesn't mean
that one causes the other.
"I don't really buy that, that
Tennessee has a higher crime rate because we have a significant
percentage of gun ownership," said John Harris, a Nashville attorney who
serves as the volunteer
executive director for the Tennessee Firearms Association. "I don't
know that that's it. It sounds like potentially a correlation however
Harris pointed to research that shows that
handgun permit owners, for example, were less likely to commit crimes
than the general population.
As for why else Tennessee might be so
high, he pointed to Shelby County, in particular, as a high-crime area
that could be skewing the data upward. The FBI gun crime data does not
include county- or city-level statistics, making it difficult to
"Do we have a problem in the state with low
socioeconomics?" Harris asked. "Do we have a problem unemployment with
some members of the population ... that is somehow related to this?"
said that there isn't yet enough information to point to any one
factor. He wondered if police departments in Tennessee might be more
aggressive in reporting firearms cases than other states. He said there
could also be more drug and gang activity, both of which typically
involve guns as tools of the trade.
"People who are robbing drug dealers or drug dealers are using firearms to enhance their drug profits," he said.
in particular, has seen a surge in gangs in the past several years. In
2010, for example, it saw a 4 percent jump in its violent crime rate.
unclear what the motive was in the murder of Terry Whitlow. But his
widow says that the violence must stop so that another mother won't have
to tell her children about their father's tragic fate.
it's going to be heartbreaking for me to even tell them," she said.
"I'll just have to ask God to show me the way and guide me to taking
Highest rates of gun-related crimes
Tennessee had the second-highest per capita rate of gun-related
violent crimes in 2010 in the nation, according to newly released
federal crime statistics.