Oklahoma ranks fifth in the nation in gun death rates, outpacing the rate at which the national average has climbed since 2009, according to a Violence Policy Center analysis.
The Violence Policy Center this month released its analysis of homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.
In Oklahoma, the firearm death rate in 2016 was 19.52 per 100,000 people. The rate has jumped 35 percent since 2009, when the state was ranked 11th at 14.46. In the U.S., the 2016 rate was 11.96 per 100,000 people, a 17 percent increase since 2009.
That time frame is key to the Violence Policy Center’s analysis, which emphasizes that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2008 via District of Columbia v. Heller that residents have the right to keep a handgun in the home for self-defense.
“In the years since the Heller decision, gun policy on the federal level and in too many states has gone in the wrong direction,” VPC Legislative Director Kristen Rand said in a statement. “These numbers show that as a nation we are facing an escalating gun crisis.”
The Violence Policy Center said its analysis reveals that states with higher rates of gun ownership and weak gun violence prevention laws have the highest overall gun death rates in the country. Inversely, states with the lowest rates of firearm deaths have some of the strongest gun violence prevention laws.
The Violence Policy Center considers weak gun violence prevention laws as those that add “little or nothing” to federal regulations and are “permissive” in governing open or concealed carry in public.
Tulsa Police Deputy Chief Dennis Larsen said a significant component of Oklahoma’s equation in firearm death rates is difficulty in tracking guns used in crimes. Larson, who heads the Investigations Bureau, said tracing a firearm is one of the toughest jobs for investigators because there’s no paperwork when a gun is sold from individual to individual.
Larsen also pointed to how ill-equipped Oklahoma is to handle and treat mental illness, which in a desperate moment can lead to a person’s taking his or her own life with a firearm.
Nearly three-quarters of homicides and about 60 percent of suicides in the city in 2016 and 2017 involved guns, according to data provided by the Tulsa Police Department.
Tulsa had 81 homicides in 2017, of which 59 were gunshot-related, or 73 percent. There were a record 82 homicides in 2016, and 61 involved gunshot wounds, or 74 percent.
There were 69 suicides in 2017 and 85 in 2016, with 40 and 53 of them committed by firearm, respectively. That is 58 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
“So it’s kind of a combination of better tracking of the firearms, but also we need to step up on a different front and take care of mental-health issues in the state,” Larsen said.
Larsen said the Police Department also would support legislation strengthening penalties for repeat offenders who illegally possess or misuse firearms.
“How many times do you do it before something finally tragically happens?” Larsen said. “So anytime we stiffen those penalties for misuse of a firearm or illegal possession of a firearm, it helps us deal with firearm-related crimes.”
He attributed the city’s homicide rate dropoff in the latter part of 2017 to Operation Blue Thunder, which targeted violent crime. The focus was on rapid response to gun or violence calls, use of intelligence on known offenders carrying firearms, and service of warrants for weapons violations.
The operation, which Larsen termed “extraordinarily successful,” began in early November and went through the holidays. Overall in 2017, police seized more than 400 firearms on Tulsa’s streets that were illegally possessed.
“That’s more than one per day, we were taking a gun off a person who under the laws of the United States could not legally possess a firearm,” Larsen said. “And most of (them) had criminal intent to go along with those firearms.”
In 2016, the states with the four worst gun death rates were Alaska (23.86), Alabama (21.51), Louisiana (21.08) and Mississippi (19.64), according to the Violence Policy Center analysis. Oklahoma rounds out the top five at 19.52.
The five states with the lowest rates were Massachusetts (3.55), New York (4.56), Hawaii (4.62), Rhode Island (4.64) and Connecticut (4.81).
Overall, gunfire killed 38,658 people in America in 2016, up from 36,252 in 2015.
The Violence Policy Center is a nonprofit dedicated to halting gun injuries and deaths via research, education, advocacy and collaboration, according to its website.