“Firearms and Violence Under Jim Crow”

A new working paper by Mike Makowsky and Patrick Warren finds that “firearms offered an effective means of Black self-defense in the Jim Crow South.” By this the authors mean that greater access to firearms by Blacks decreased the likelihood of being lynched.

That headline finding is sure to be provocative in both debates over gun control and the history of Jim Crow. And with good reason. What I found most interesting is how they measured Black access to firearms. Since they did not have direct access to any good sources measuring Black access to firearms, they proxy access with the percent of Black suicides committed with firearms. Increased access to firearms would also mean a higher proportion of suicides were committed using firearms.

That’s a “grisly” way of measuring Black access to firearms, as Makowsky put it in a Twitter thread summarizing the paper. But also a very creative one.

Here’s the full abstract:

We assess firearm access in the U.S. South by measuring the fraction of suicides committed with firearms. Black residents of the Jim Crow South were disarmed, before re-arming themselves during the Civil-Rights Era. We find that lynchings decrease with greater Black firearm access. During the Civil-Rights Movement, both the relative Black homicide and Black “accidental death by firearm” rates decrease with Black firearm access, indicating frequent misclassification of homicides as accidents. In the contemporary era, greater firearm access correlates with higher Black death rates. We find that firearms offered an effective means of Black self-defense in the Jim Crow South.

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