Minnesota gun deaths hit 20-year high

Sharpest spike seen in homicide, but suicides on the rise, too

By: - September 19, 2022 6:00 am

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The number of Minnesotans dying from gunfire in 2021 rose to the highest level in over 20 years, according to preliminary mortality data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 570 gun deaths in Minnesota last year include 164 homicides, 393 suicides, and 13 additional deaths that were either accidental or of undetermined intent. The youngest victim was a 3-year-old girl who was accidentally shot by a 5-year-old in Cass County last August. The oldest, a 97-year-old Steele County man who records indicate took his own life at home after a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.

The rate of gun homicides, in particular, has skyrocketed, more than doubling between 2018 and 2021. The overwhelming majority (80%) of those homicides took place in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, according to detailed data obtained from the Minnesota Department of Health by Protect Minnesota, a gun safety group. Homicides began rising in 2019 and continued through the pandemic and social unrest caused by George Floyd’s murder.

Minnesota gun deaths

A surge in pandemic-era gun purchasing is at least partly to blame for the rise in gun homicide. Federal background checks for gun sales in Minnesota surged from 604,000 in 2018 to 945,000 in 2021, an increase of 56%. Across the state, the share of all homicides committed with a firearm rose from 54% to 82% during the same period. 

But the data also underscore an oft-overlooked component of the American gun violence epidemic: the suicides that account for roughly two-thirds of all gun deaths. Suicide is a form of violence as well, with effects arguably no less devastating than homicide on the communities it touches. But suicide rates are often missing from statewide discussions of rising violence and what to do about it.

In contrast to homicide, nearly 60% of gun suicides happen in greater Minnesota. The gun suicide rate there is nearly twice as high as in the Twin Cities metro. The median suicide victim in Minnesota is white, male and almost 50. The typical homicide victim, by contrast, is black, male and around 30. Women make up just 19% of homicide victims and 9% of suicides.

All told, when suicides are factored in the average greater Minnesota resident has slightly higher odds of dying to gunfire than the average resident of the Twin Cities.

“This analysis shows the devastating, and growing, impact that gun violence has on all of our communities, from the Twin Cities to Greater Minnesota,” said Protect Minnesota executive director Rashmi Seneviratne in a statement. “Every number in this report represents a loved one lost and an entire community left grieving.”

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Scott Jensen has made violent crime a centerpiece of his election campaign. However, he is on record supporting gun policies that most experts believe would make gun violence worse. He supports so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws which are likely to increase violent crime, according to the balance of published evidence analyzed by the RAND Corporation, a think tank.

Conversely, Jensen opposes red flag laws and universal background checks, both of which are likely to decrease the incidence of violent crime, according to the available research.

Minnesota is far from the only state grappling with a pandemic-era increase in firearm mortality, and our total gun death rate remains lower than the nationwide average, as well as lower than the rate in neighboring states. But the recent statewide spike in gun mortality – to say nothing of the concomitant increase in non-lethal gun injuries – is very real, and devastating for the communities most affected.

Like violent crime overall, gun violence in Minnesota is a complicated problem that defies the sorts of pat solutions that make their way into political campaign ads. Policy-wise, the evidence analyzed by the Rand Corporation suggests that waiting periods, stringent background checks, laws to prevent child gun access and prohibitions related to domestic violence would have the biggest effects on violent crime and suicide rates. 

But the underlying human motivations behind those trends – the fear and rage causing men to point guns at each other, and the despair driving them to turn them on themselves – are a much thornier problem.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.