The Geography of U.S. Gun Violence

America’s regions are poles apart when it comes to gun deaths and the cultural and ideological forces that drive them.

By Colin Woodard

Whenever you happen to read this article a chilling mass shooting has probably been in U.S. headlines recently. When I started writing this post it was the murder of three nine-year olds, their principal, teacher and custodian at a small Christian school in a comfortable Nashville neighborhood by a former student with an AR-15 rifle; by the time I finished five were killed at a Louisville, Kentucky bank, including a close friend of that state’s governor; 32 had been shot – four fatally — at a Zumba studio in rural Alabama where a 16-year old girl was celebrating her birthday; teenagers had been shot for accidentally ringing the wrong door bell in Kansas City and approaching the wrong car after cheerleading practice in suburban Texas and a 20-year old woman killed after turning into the wrong driveway in rural Hebron, New York; and a young man executed his parents and two family friends in rural Maine and then shot two random people on a stretch of highway I drive regularly because he thought they were pursuing him. There’s the numbing certainty that someone somewhere soon will enter a shopping mall, concert venue, restaurant, lawn party, university campus or another school and start shooting people. It can – it has – happened just about everywhere: places rich and poor, in big cities, leafy suburbs, and tiny towns, in schools in Newtown, Connecticut, and Columbine, Colorado, and Parkland, Florida, in the shadow of a Las Vegas skyscraper and the altar of a Charleston church and the steps of a Chicagoland synagogue.

It’s not just mass shootings. Our country as a whole is marked by staggering levels of deadly violence, much of it committed with firearms. Our death rate from assault is many times higher than that of highly urbanized countries like the Netherlands or Germany, sparsely populated nations with plenty of forests and game hunters like Sweden, Finland or New Zealand, and large, populous ones like the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan. There’s state-sponsored violence, too: last year we executed 11 times as many prisoners as other advanced industrialized nations combined, which is less surprising when you realize that Japan is the only other such country that allows the practice. Our gun homicide rate is nearly ten times that of Canada.

But what’s less well appreciated is how much the incidence of deadly violence generally – and gun violence in particular – varies by region. It’s as if we live in separate countries, some of which have gun violence profiles that look like Canada’s, others that resemble the Philippines, Panama, or Peru. And the reasons for this go back centuries, part and parcel of dominant cultural heritages laid down by the rival colonial projects that spread across our continent in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Reducing levels of deadly violence in the U.S. won’t be easy, but understanding the nature of the problem is an essential first step.

Scholars have long recognized regional differences in deadly violence generally and gun violence in particular. But our conventional way of defining regions—dividing the country along state boundaries into a Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest—masks the cultural lines along which attitudes toward violence fall. These lines don’t respect state boundaries, but they are the tectonic plates of our history, the dividing lines upon which our culture wars have been fought for a quarter millennium now. To understand violence or practically any other divisive issue – be it Covid-19 vaccinations or political contests or attitudes about the threats to the republic — you need to understand the historical settlement patterns that created our rival regional cultures and the distinct ideologies and values they carried with them. We’ve created a synopsis which you can quickly read here at Nationhood Lab – it gives a thumbnail sketch of the 11 regional cultures and their origins — but their story is told in detail in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Using the regions so-defined, Nationhood Lab calculated the gun death, homicide and suicide rates for the period 2010 to 2020 using data as collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The results, crunched and mapped with our data analysis partners Motivf, are stark. Here are the results for overall gun deaths – both suicides and homicides — during the 11-year period:

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

As you can see, the death rate varies wildly between regions. Of the larger regions, the Deep South is the most deadly with a smoothed rate of 15.6 per 100,000 residents, followed by Greater Appalachia at 13.5. On the other end of the spectrum, New Netherland – the Dutch-founded area around New York City – has a smoothed rate of just 3.8 per 100,000, a rate less than a quarter that of the Deep South and not much higher than in Switzerland, a West European country with widespread gun ownership, relatively permissive laws, and one of the region’s highest gun death rates. It is followed by Yankeedom, a region with about the same population as Deep South and which includes Detroit, Milwaukee, and part of Chicagoland, at 8.6 deaths per 100,000, about half that of its southern counterpart. Two regions that have very small enclaves in the U.S., but are far larger in Canada – New France (in southern Louisiana) and First Nation (in northern and western Alaska) are outliers with staggeringly high rates – 19.8 and 27.6 smoothed deaths per 100,000 people; Hawaii – part of the truly sprawling Greater Polynesia region in the Pacific – has a very low rate of 3.5.

The pattern is similar for gun suicide rates. First Nation is again the worst region with a smoothed rate of 22.3. New France and Deep South are high at 8.9 and 8.7 per 100,000 respectively. New Netherland is once again the safest with a rate of just 1.4, which makes it safer in this regard then Canada, Sweden or Switzerland. Yankeedom and Left Coast are also relatively safe, with rates of 5.2 and 6, the latter also the rate in El Norte. The Midlands and Tidewater, as in most metrics, are in between.

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

But there are some differences as well. Greater Appalachia has the worst gun suicide risk of all the large nations for suicide with a rate of 9.2 and the Far West is close behind at 8.8. More on this shortly.

Compare this with the regions’ gun homicide rates:

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

Notice Far West goes from being the second most dangerous large nation for firearm suicides to the third safest in terms of gun homicides. Far Westerners shoot themselves, not one another. To a lesser extent you see the same pattern in another libertarian-minded region, Greater Appalachia, though as you’ll see in a moment there’s a major caveat there. New Netherland is once again the safest region – with a rate a third that of Appalachia. It tops even Hawaii – an island state with tough gun control measures. The rates themselves, incidentally, are all many times higher than in any other wealthy democracy. The comparable rate for western Europe’s worst country for gun homicides, Belgium, was just 0.36 in 2016.

One point of caution. This analysis relies on the CDC county-level data, which the agency has smoothed for privacy reasons. In layman’s terms they’ve smudged the data in spatial terms – like making a high-resolution image a little pixilated. (Each county’s smoothed rate is actually the per capita rate for the county’s immediate neighborhood: the county and those it borders on.) This means it’s a reliable depiction of geographic patterns and of the risks of living in that area but it is, by design, not the precise rate of the county itself.

The CDC’s data set is still the best around because health care providers and law enforcement agencies are required to report to it and because it collects and presents gun death data by the race and ethnicity of the victim and other factors. But, again for privacy reasons the agency also suppresses data for any county reporting a value of less than 10 deaths for whatever segment you are looking at. This prevented us from being able to accurately parse smaller sub-categories. For instance, we wanted to compare rural counties in one region to rural counties in another, but because so many rural counties have fewer than 10 gun deaths or homicides or suicides even in an 11 year period we weren’t able to do so with any confidence. The same was true for trying to compare Hispanic or Asian-American rates across regions, or even for the rate for African-Americans overall between regions (though we were able to calculate rates for larger urban counties and compare them inter-regionally.)

We were also able to compare the rates for only urban counties in each of the regions. The results were very similar to the overall rates, with New Netherland, Yankeedom and Left Coast the safest large regions, Deep South and Far West the most dangerous both for gun deaths and gun suicides. For urban gun homicides, New Netherland, Left Coast and Far West were safest, Deep South and the Midlands the most dangerous.

We were also able to compare the white gun death rates in each region, which yielded a familiar pattern:

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

White gun homicide deaths had some intriguing regional pattern differences, however. Notice Greater Appalachia – middle-of-the-road for overall gun homicides – becomes the second most dangerous large region when looking at whites only, with a rate of 2.2 per 100,000. Deep South is again the worst at 2.8, New Netherland the safest at just 0.5, a rate comparable to the gun homicide rate of Canada. Yankeedom’s is just 0.8, which is just twice that of Belgium.

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

If you live in a larger urban environment – in one of the 466 U.S. counties the National Center for Health Statistics categorizes in groups one and two in the six-tiered urban-to-rural spectrum we use in our analysis —  which region is safest depends very much on your race.

For white Americans, the big city regional patterns become even more stark, whether you’re looking at overall gun deaths, gun suicides or gun homicides. The Deep South is the most dangerous large region in all three categories, and the Far West is close behind for suicides and, thus, overall.  Greater Appalachia is the second most dangerous large region for homicides and third for both suicides and overall gun deaths.

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

But if you’re a big city African-American, the regional picture changes completely. The Deep South and Greater Appalachia become relatively safe — both overall and for gun homicides – even as they are the most deadly for whites. The most dangerous large regions for African-American big city residents are Left Coast, Yankeedom, the Midlands, where the per capita smoothed homicide rates hit a shocking 24.5, 26.6 and 29.5 per 100,000 respectively – figures more than twice Mexico’s national rate. (Context: for many decades, Black Americans have faced far higher gun homicide rates than white Americans, but have roughly the half the gun suicide risk.) New Netherland remains the safest, though, with a rate of 11.1. 

Credit: Nationhood Lab/Motivf

A look at the county smoothed rates shows Black homicide rates are driven by a handful of large metros: the Bay Area in Left Coast; Chicagoland (which is shared between Yankeedom and the Midlands); Detroit and Milwaukee in Yankeedom; and the Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore metro areas in the Midlands. Other large metros have relatively low rates, including Boston, Hartford, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland. (Remember these are smoothed rates, so look to these maps for general, relative impressions not specific per capita rates for a given county.)

A few words on methodology. In each exercise, we calculated the smoothed rates for our regions by taking the CDC’s smoothed deaths for each county and dividing them by the smoothed population. To do the latter calculation we reverse engineered what the CDC did to create their rate: we added together the population of the target county’s “neighborhood” – that county and the counties it bordered on. The figure we used for every county was an average of that county’s 2010 and 2020 census population – in other words, the average population of each county during the 11-year study period. Our smoothed rates are actual rates — not age-adjusted — and any international comparisons made in this article are also to absolute rates.

So, to summarize our findings by “nation”:

The Deep South is the most dangerous large region in almost every respect, except if you are African-American, where it becomes one of the safer regions on a per capita basis.

Greater Appalachia is one of the most dangerous places if you are white, especially for gun homicides, but the overall homicide rate ranks it in the middle of the other large regions.

The Far West is very safe, relative to the rest of the U.S., in terms of gun homicide risk, but very dangerous in regards to suicide. No other region shows this degree of polarization.

The Midlands is generally in the middle of the pack, except for gun homicides where it is one of the most dangerous places to be Black and one of the safer places to be white. A glance at the smoothed rate county map indicates that there is a strong difference between rural and urban areas, with the latter more dangerous. (The Midlands is also the only region with strong, persistent urban-rural divides in political behavior.) It’s also one of the most dangerous places to be a black city dweller.

El Norte generally ranks in the middle of the other regions in terms of gun violence, too. It’s fairly safe in terms of gun homicides (3.6 per 100,000) and suicides (6 per 100,000), where it ties with Left Coast as the third safest of the non-enclave regions. The white homicide rate is relatively high at 2 per 100,000, making it the third most dangerous of the large nations (after Deep South and Greater Appalachia) in this respect. It’s one of the safer nations for black city dwellers.

Tidewater historically had very high indices of violence, but today it’s one of the safer regional cultures. In American Nations (2011) I noted that the region’s distinctiveness had been vanishing in recent decades due to it being a small area (westward spread was effectively blocked in the 18th century by Greater Appalachia’s numerous settlers) that hosts much of the federal government (in the adjacent District of Columbia and around Hampton Roads, site of the world’s largest naval base); trillions of dollars in federal spending has created a world where literally millions of outsiders can and have been living economic, social, and cultural lives without reference to the legacy Tidewater culture around them. The effects can be seen in politics (Virginia is now a reliable “blue” state) and now in gun violence trends as well. Note the most dangerous counties are those in the Piedmont approaching Greater Appalachia, where the “federal halo effect” is weakest.

Yankeedom is also one of the safest regions, with the second lowest per capita deaths of any of the large region from suicide overall and for suicide and homicide for city-dwellers, whites, and white city-dwellers. The exception: it’s one of the most dangerous places to be a Black city-dweller in regards to homicides. There is a more than 33-fold difference between the African-American and white homicide rate in the “big city” urban counties (NCHS Categories 1 and 2), 0.8 and 26.6 per 100,000. (For comparison, there is “only” a 7-to-1 difference between these populations in Deep Southern big city counties, where the figures are 2.4 and 19.) This, as with the Midlands, appears to be driven by a handful of metro areas: Chicago (shared with the Midlands), Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Buffalo.

Left Coast, as with so many things, displays a similar pattern as Yankeedom. It’s the second safest large region in terms of overall homicide and third for overall suicide. It also has a wide white/Black disparity among city dwellers – 1.3 to 24.5 – due almost entirely to the high African-American homicide risk in the Bay Area.

New Netherland is far and away the safest of the large regions, and often safer even than Hawaii, despite being the most densely populated part of our continent. This applies to gun homicides and suicides and for both white and Black Americans. The white gun homicide rate, as mentioned before, rivals Canada’s all-population rate, while the region’s African-American rate (which is 28 times higher) is about the same as New France’s overall homicide rate, cities and Cajun country included. (Because all of New Netherland’s counties are Category 1 and 2, we know this region’s overall Black rates, whereas in other regions data suppression made calculating these figures too imprecise.)

In regards to the four smaller “enclave” regions, First Nation is far and away the most risky place in terms of deadly gun violence with a calculated smoothed rate of 27.6 per 100,000. This figure is overwhelmingly driven by a catastrophic gun suicide rate of 22.3 per 100,000, a rate more than double that of its nearest rival (Greater Appalachia at 9.2) and quadruple that of Yankeedom. A word of caution on these numbers: while First Nation is, geographically, the largest North American regional culture examined in American Nations – it encompasses Greenland and much of the Canadian North – it is sparsely populated and the U.S. section examined here has just 57,000 residents and several of its enormous counties border on more populous Far Western ones, so smoothing could have an unusually distorting effect. But the overall picture is correct, as the suicide crisis within these Native Alaskan communities – which bears heaviest on very young men – is well documented.

New France – an historic enclave of a much larger regional culture in southern Quebec and parts of New Brunswick – is far and away the most dangerous part of the U.S. for gun homicides, with a smoothed rate roughly triple that of the northeastern fifth and western half of the country. Gun suicides are also high and Black and white big city homicide rates are the highest in the country (a tie with Deep South in the case of white deaths.) Orleans Parish (home to New Orleans) is the epicenter in all cases, but smoothed rates are also high in the Cajun country parishes. We should also note here that Orleans Parish is one of only two U.S. counties that are shared equally between two regional cultures in the American Nations model, in this case New France and Deep South. (The other is Cook County, Illinois, which for geographical reasons was co-settled by Yankees and Midlanders.)

Hawaii, the U.S. portion of Greater Polynesia, is by many metrics even safer than New Netherland. This is a state with strong gun control policies which most people travel to via security-screened transport: commercial aircraft and ships. Southern Florida, the northern reaches of the Spanish Caribbean colonial space, is roughly in the middle in most categories.

Other indices of violence show similar patterns

The regional patterns described above have been observed in all sorts of related phenomena. A 2015 project by The Oregonian newspaper to map the smoothed gun violence rates for the period 2004-2010 revealed essentially the same patterns for that period. Around the same time, Kieran Healy, a Duke University sociologist, broke down the per capita, age-adjusted deadly assault rate for 2010. In the northeastern states—almost entirely dominated by Yankeedom, New Netherland and the Midlands—just over 4 people per 100,000 died in assaults. By contrast, southern states—largely monopolized by Deep South, Tidewater and Greater Appalachia—had a rate of more than 7 per 100,000. The three deadliest states—Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where the rate of killings topped 10 per 100,000—were all in Deep South territory. Meanwhile, the three safest states—New Hampshire, Maine and Minnesota, with rates of about 2 killings per 100,000—were all part of Yankeedom.

Or consider attitudes toward the use of deadly violence. Stand-your-ground laws – which waive a citizen’s duty to try and retreat from a threatening individual before killing the person – provide a stark example. Of the 30 states to pass stand-your-ground laws, only two, New Hampshire and Michigan, are dominated by Yankeedom, and only two – Pennsylvania and  Illinois are controlled by a Yankee-Midlands majority. By contrast, every one of the six Deep South–dominated states has passed such a law, and almost all the other states with similar laws are in the Far West or Greater Appalachia. There’s the same pattern when it comes to endorsing the state’s use of deadly violence. The states dominated by Deep South, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater and the Far West have had a virtual monopoly on capital punishment. They account for more than 95 percent of the 1,597 executions in the United States since 1976. In the same period, the 12 states definitively controlled by Yankeedom and New Netherland—states that account for almost a quarter of the U.S. population—have executed just one person.

Comparable schisms show up in the debate over gun-control. Shortly after the 2011 shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabriel Giffords and others, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what was more important, protecting gun ownership or controlling it. The Yankee states of New England went for gun control by a margin of 61 to 36, while those in the poll’s “southeast central” region—the Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi and the Appalachian states of Tennessee and Kentucky—supported gun rights by exactly the same margin. Far Western states backed gun rights by a proportion of 59 to 38.

After the 2014 Newtown school massacre – when 20 first graders and six school staff were murdered by a man with a Bushmaster rifle — the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill to close loopholes in federal background checks for would-be gun owners. In the six states dominated by Deep South, the vote was 12 to two against the measure, and most of the Far West and Appalachia followed suit. But Yankee New England voted 11 to one in favor, and the dissenting vote, from Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, was so unpopular in her home state that it triggered an immediate dip in her approval rating and she lost reelection.

First Settler Effects

So why do we see these patterns between the “American Nations?” It all goes back to who settled those regions and where they came from.

In a classic 1993 study the social psychologist Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan, noted that regions initially “settled by sober Puritans, Quakers and Dutch farmer-artisans”—that is, Yankeedom, the Midlands and New Netherland—were organized around a yeoman agricultural economy that rewarded “quiet, cooperative citizenship, with each individual being capable of uniting for the common good.” The South—and by this he meant the nations I call Tidewater and Deep South—was settled by “swashbuckling Cavaliers of noble or landed gentry status, who took their values . . . from the knightly, medieval standards of manly honor and virtue.”

Nisbett argued that the violent streak in the culture these “Cavaliers” established was intensified by the “major subsequent wave of immigration … from the borderlands of Scotland and Ireland.” These immigrants — who populated what I call Greater Appalachia — came from “an economy based on herding,” which, as anthropologists have shown, predisposes people to belligerent stances, because the animals on which their wealth depends are so vulnerable to theft. Drawing on the work of the historian David Hackett Fisher, Nisbett maintained that “Southern” violence stems partly from a “culture-of-honor tradition,” in which males are raised to create reputations for ferocity—as a deterrent to rustling—rather than relying on official legal intervention.

These southern cultures developed what anthropologists call a “culture of honor tradition” in which males treasure their honor and believed it can be diminished if an insult, slight or wrong were ignored. “In these cultures you have to establish yourself as tough and not to be messed with and the way to do that to let people know you’re not to be messed with on big matters is to show them you are not to be messed with in small matters either,” says University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign psychologist Dov Cohen, who has researched various aspects of the phenomenon with Nisbett and others.   

Pauline Grosjean, an economist at Australia’s University of New South Wales, found strong statistical relationships between the presence of Scots-Irish settlers in the 1790 census and early 21st century homicide rates, but only in Southern areas “where the institutional environment was weak”—which is the case in almost the entirety of Greater Appalachia. She further noted that in areas where Scots-Irish were dominant, settlers of other ethnic origins—Dutch, French and German—were also more violent, suggesting that they had acculturated to Appalachian norms. The effect was strongest for white offenders and persisted even when controlling for poverty, inequality, demographics, and education. “Cultural norms have persisted as a private justice system, which substituted for formal law enforcement,” she concluded.

In another study, Robert Baller of the University of Iowa and two colleagues looked at late-20th-century white male “argument-related” homicide rates, comparing those in counties that, in 1850, were dominated by Scots-Irish settlers with those in other parts of the “Old South.” In other words, they teased out the rates at which white men killed each other in feuds and compared those for Greater Appalachia with those for Deep South and Tidewater. The result: Appalachian areas had significantly higher homicide rates than their lowland neighbors— “findings [that] are supportive of theoretical claims about the role of herding as the ecological underpinning of a code of honor,” the researchers wrote.

In these same regions this aggressive proclivity is coupled with the violent legacy of having been slave societies. Before 1865, enslaved people were kept in check through the threat and application of violence including whippings, torture, and often gruesome executions. For nearly a century thereafter, similar measures were used by the KKK, off-duty law enforcement, and thousands of ordinary white citizens to enforce a racial caste system. The Monroe and Florence Works Today Project mapped every lynching and deadly race riot in the U.S. between 1848 and 1964 and found over 90 percent of the incidents occurred in those three regions or El Norte, where Deep Southern “Anglos” enforced a caste system on the region’s Hispanic majority. In places with a legacy of lynching — which is only now starting to pass out of living memory – SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner and two colleagues found a significant increase one type of homicide, the argument-related killing of Blacks by whites, that isn’t explained by other factors.

By contrast, the Yankee and Midland cultural legacies featured factors that dampened deadly violence by individuals. The Puritan founders of Yankeedom promoted self-doubt and self-restraint, and their Unitarian and Congregational spiritual descendants believed vengeance would not receive the approval of an all-knowing God (though there were plenty of loopholes in regards to indigenous people and others regarded as being outside the community.) This region was the center of the 19th-century death penalty reform movement, which began eliminating capital punishment for burglary, robbery, sodomy and other nonlethal crimes, and today none of the states it controls permit executions save New Hampshire, which hasn’t killed a person since 1939. The Midlands were founded by pacifist Quakers and attracted likeminded emigrants who set the cultural tone: Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, German Lutheran pietists and others who believed violence in any form was unacceptable.

But if herding and weak institutions foster more violent societies, why is the Far West so safe in regards to gun homicide, but so dangerous for gun suicide? We looked to one of the foremost experts on the region’s suicide problem, Carolyn Pepper, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Wyoming, for her thoughts. Her feedback: the region’s low population densities and levels of religious attendance increase social isolation – a key suicide risk factor – while a stoic, individualistic, solve-your-own-problems cultural ethos discourages people from seeking help. “Drugs and alcohol probably get factored in as well, as we have some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the country,” she notes.

Another twist that can neither be easily dismissed nor explained: suicide rates in the region rise with altitude, even when you control for other factors. The 50 U.S. counties with the highest veteran firearm suicide rates have a mean altitude five times higher than the 50 with the lowest, even when adjusting for population density, race, age, gender and income, a team of federal researchers found recently. But while this pattern has been found in South Korea and Japan, Pepper notes, it doesn’t seem to exist in the Andes, Himalayas or the mountains of Australia, so it would appear unlikely to have a physiological explanation, Pepper said.

The Far West’s low gun homicide rate needs further study. One hypothesis to test: is the culture of gun ownership different in that region – and perhaps more similar to that in Yankeedom – than it is in Greater Appalachia or the Deep South?

Ask New York-area experts why New Netherland is so safe and they also point to cultural explanations rather than the more restrictive gun policies in New York City and in New York and New Jersey. says Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a member of the Rockefeller Institute’s Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, put it this way: “New York City is a very diverse place. We see people from different cultural and religious traditions every moment and we just know one another, so it’s harder for people to foment inter-group hatreds.”  Policy, he said plays a role in who can get access to weapons, but its culture that influences what they do with them.

Jaclyn Schildkraut, executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, noted there are clear regional patterns in how state governments react to mass shootings. “When Newtown happened, Connecticut and nearby New York and New Jersey passed incredibly comprehensive gun control packages,” she notes. “But while New York was trying to close gun loopholes, Texas has been trying to put more guns out there, making changes that would make it easier for something like Uvalde to happen.”

With such sharp regional differences, it is unlikely the United States will ever reach a federation-wide consensus on gun control. The cultural gulf between Appalachia and Yankeedom or the Deep South and New Netherland is simply too large. But, as with so many things in the history of U.S. federal politics, it’s conceivable that political supermajority could coalesce that could find agreement on measures that could have a marginal effect, like banning high-capacity magazines or creating truly universal background checks. In regional terms that would mean finding common ground between the “nations” that are already there – Yankeedom, Left Coast and New Netherland – and those that are in the middle: Midlands, El Norte, Tidewater and, yes, the Far West.

But none of the reforms that are currently imaginable in the U.S. political and constitutional context are going to get our country’s gun death rates down to the levels of the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany or Japan, warns Carl T. Bogus, a second amendment scholar at the Roger Williams School of Law. “There was a time in my lifetime when Gallup showed 60 percent of Americans supported banning handguns, a measure that wasn’t thought of as extreme and would have a dramatic effect,” he notes. “Today it’s probably in the single digits and that’s because the gun control movement let gun activists shift the Overton window” of what is acceptable to contemplate, facilitating the 2008 Supreme Court decision that found, for the first time, an individual Constitutional right to firearm ownership separate from one’s role in a regulated militia.

“Culture drives politics, law and policy,” Bogus adds. “Somebody has got to be working on shifting the Overton window back so we can have effective gun control. Not next year or in five years, but eventually.”

[Update, 6/7/23: We have a follow-up to this analysis providing some insights on regional gun ownership and attitudes toward various gun control measures via the Nationscape survey project]

— Colin Woodard, author of American Nations, is the director of Nationhood Lab at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. He thanks his colleagues at Motivf, Tova Perlman (for crunching data) and John Liberty (for the maps in this piece.)