Viral map shows election results from 2016, not totals of guns, shootings | Fact check

The claim: Map shows areas of US with highest percentage of guns, gun violence

A Feb. 21 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shows a map of the U.S. with much of the country shaded red. Small pockets of the map, particularly on the West Coast, are shaded blue.

“97% of all guns are in the red territory,” reads the text in the post. “97% of all gun violence is in blue.”

It was liked more than 10,000 times in a week. Similar versions accumulated thousands of additional likes.

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Our rating: False

The map shows the results of the 2016 presidential election by congressional district and is not based on any gun data. There is no credible count of firearms in each congressional district, experts said. While the map suggests a correlation between high numbers of guns and low rates of gun violence, the opposite is true, according to experts and published research.

Numbers in post are ‘fabricated or bad guesses’

There are several reasons why the claim in the post is baseless, multiple experts told USA TODAY.

First, the map is not based on any gun data. It shows the voting results of the 2016 presidential election by congressional district and was originally published in 2017 by Medium. Districts that voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the election are blue, while those that went for Republican Donald Trump are red.

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The post also leaves out several other key pieces of information. It does not identify the source of the 97% claims or explain how they were calculated.

“I assume the numbers in the post … are fabricated or bad guesses,” said Andrew Morral, the director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research at the RAND Corporation.

The post also fails to specify what it means by “gun violence” – which can include homicides, suicides or accidental shootings, said Dr. Matthew Miller, a professor at Northeastern University who has researched gun violence.

And the basis of the map cannot be the number of guns in each congressional district because data at that level does not exist, multiple experts said.

Counting the guns in each state is difficult because many of them do not require gun owners to register their guns, and the federal government is legally prohibited from determining it, according to the Giffords Law Center.

“We clearly don’t know at the county level or the ZIP code level,” said David Hemenway, the director of Harvard University’s Injury Control Research Center and the author of a book on gun violence.

The post also wrongly suggests a correlation between high numbers of guns and low levels of gun violence.

“The pattern described in the post is not correct,” Morral said.

The states with the highest gun death rates tend to be in the South or in the Rocky Mountains, areas with generally weaker gun laws and higher rates of gun ownership, according to a June 2023 Johns Hopkins study. It found that Mississippi and Louisiana, which are largely red on the map shown in the post, had the highest rates of gun deaths in 2021. But Massachusetts – which is blue on that map to supposedly indicate high rates of gun violence – had the lowest rate of gun deaths.

A Rand analysis of 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data reached a similar conclusion, finding that some of those Rocky Mountain states had some of the highest rates of gun suicides while many of the highest gun homicide rates were clustered in the Deep South.

“The rate of gun ownership is positively linked to some measures of gun violence,” said Philip Cook, a professor emeritus at Duke University and an expert on gun violence. “The closest link is to the gun suicide rate at the state level. So, more guns mean more suicides, and especially more gun suicides.”

USA TODAY reached out to the social media user who shared the post but did not immediately receive a response.

PolitiFact and Lead Stories also debunked the claim.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Map shows 2016 election results, not based on gun numbers | Fact check