#BlackLivesMatter: are you more likely to get shot if you’re black?

In this Big Question we’ve been looking at whether guns are always bad - whether they more often hurt people or protect them. But perhaps there isn’t one simple answer to that question - perhaps the answer depends on the colour of your skin...


In America, there’s a strong belief that guns are pretty much always bad if you’re black, as you’re much more likely to get shot than a white person. In particular, you're more likely to be shot by the police - who are supposed to be helping and protecting people.

And that's what kickstarted the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, which believes that black people are not considered by American society to be as important or valuable as white people - which is why police officers are more likely to shoot and kill them. This campaign is just one piece of a much larger argument about racism in America, as you might know from how much attention it’s had in the media.

But while it’s clear that race is a huge issue in American society right now, we need to dig into the facts to find out whether race makes a difference when it comes to guns being good or bad. So what do the numbers say - are you more likely to see the negative side of guns if you’re a black person in America?

Shootings - the numbers

A study of all the shooting deaths caused by police officers in America in 2015 found that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by the cops. 1,134 people were killed in total and black men between the ages of 15 and 34 made up more than 15% of those victims - despite making up only 2% of the total US population.

You might think it could be put down to self-defence - that the police were being shot at and they had to shoot back. But about 25% of the black men who were killed were unarmed - they didn’t even have a gun on them. So it seems like the police didn’t have any reason to shoot at them, other than maybe their skin colour.

A study of all the shooting deaths caused by police officers in America in 2015 found that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by the police.

These statistics paint a pretty bad picture. But that’s the interesting thing about numbers - the pictures they paint don’t always tell the whole story…

Race and gun violence: a complicated problem

The statistics above show that the percentage of police-shooting victims who are black is much higher than the percentage of people who live in America and are black, that’s true. So it seems like the police are unfairly targeting black people. But this isn’t actually a particularly helpful comparison to make. After all, the police don’t just wander around the country killing people randomly - people are almost exclusively shot by cops at the scene of a crime. So rather than a statistic about the general population, the more relevant statistic is about which people are most likely to be at a crime scene - in other words, which people are most likely to be committing a crime or hanging out in a neighbourhood where a crime is committed.

If we take a look at just one city, New York, we can see that recent research shows that 75% of the shootings and 70% of the robberies that happen there are committed by a black person - despite the fact that black people only make up 23% of the city’s population. And those statistics are similar when you look at the US as a whole. So although a black person is more likely to be shot by the cops, the statistics show that it’s often because they’re more likely to be doing something that makes the police need to shoot at them.

Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that being black makes you a criminal or a bad person - people of all races commit crimes. And there are lots of reasons why black neighbourhoods in America tend to have higher crime rates - they’re often much poorer communities, with less access to education, and they often have very little power in society. And lots of crime, committed by people of all skin colours, is a response to being oppressed.

But those numbers offer a different explanation of why so many more black people are shot by the police than any other ethnicity - that it’s not necessarily because the cops are racist (although some of them might be) but because a black person is more likely to be either involved in or at the scene of a crime.

What do we mean by ‘unarmed’?

There’s also a slightly different way of understanding the statistic that ‘25% of the black men who were killed were unarmed’. In this context, that simply means that when they were stopped by the police they weren’t carrying a gun of their own. But it hides the fact that in some of those cases it was documented that the suspects then tried to grab and use a police officer’s gun - so does that make it more reasonable for the police to then start shooting at them in order to protect themselves and others at the scene?

And in a few of the cases, the black victims were actually shot and killed accidentally while they were fighting with a police officer and wrestling to steal their gun - so it was their own actions that brought about their death, rather than the actions of the cop. But they still get officially recorded as ‘a black unarmed victim shot by the police’ - which makes the person sound less violent and the police sound more unreasonable.

Another thing that throws some different light on the numbers is the skin colour of the police officers who did the shooting. A study done in 2015 by the US Department of Justice looked at police shootings in Philadelphia and found that the most likely person to fire a gun at a black criminal was actually a black police officer. In fact, it wasn’t just about shooting at black people - the study showed that no matter what the skin colour of the criminal, black cops were 3.3 times more likely to fire a gun at a crime scene than white or Hispanic cops.

Does racism make guns more likely to be dangerous?

So numbers can tell very different stories, depending on how you understand them and which ones you get shown.

But we’re still left with the question of whether or not skin colour changes the answer to our Big Question. The statistics do make it clear that you’re more likely to get shot if you’re black. There are some explanations that might help make sense of why that’s true, but it doesn’t change the facts. So you might think guns are always bad for black people - but maybe not so much for other ethnicities. Or if you focus on the crime statistics, as well as the fact that black cops are more likely to shoot a gun than white cops, you might think guns are mostly bad for non-black people. Or maybe you already know what you think about guns, and skin colour just doesn’t come into it.

What’s your vote going to be?