Tennessee gun crime rate is among highest

7:57 AM, Oct 4, 2011   |    comments
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
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Brian Haas 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."

What 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 harm.

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.

"You 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.

"One 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 victims.

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.

However, 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 lacking causation."

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 determine that.

"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?"

Green 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.

Nashville, 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.

It's 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.

"I know 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 those steps."

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.

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