KANSAS CITY — Disputes over hamburgers from fast-food restaurants cost two black St. Louis residents their lives in 2008 and helped Missouri reclaim its position as the state with the nation's highest black homicide rate.
There were 287 black homicide victims in Missouri that year, with 246 of those slayings either in St. Louis or Kansas City, according to statistics provided by the FBI. The result is a black homicide rate of 39.90 per 100,000 black residents, far higher than Pennsylvania's rate of 31.05 per 100,000.
Nationwide, the overall homicide rate for 2008 was 4.93 per 100,000, according to the Violence Policy Center, which issued its annual black victimization report Wednesday.
"While Missouri has the highest rate of black homicide victimization, across the nation this is a long-ignored crisis that is devastating black teens and adults," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the center and co-author of the study.
Missouri has had one of the nation's top five black homicide rates in four of the last five reports, including holding the top spot in 2008 and No. 2 position in 2010 behind Pennsylvania, another perennial member of the list. Statistics used in each study are from three years earlier, the most recent available at the time the reports are issued.
"Unfortunately, with homicides in general, there is a tendency to resolve disputes using the barrel of a gun," said St. Louis Police Department spokeswoman Erica Van Ross. "Two of our homicides in 2008 stemmed from arguments over fast-food hamburgers. Two people are dead because of arguments over a burger. It's incredibly frustrating."
According to the report, more than 75 percent of the victims were killed by someone they knew, and more than 80 percent of the slayings were the result of arguments between the victim and killer. Guns were involved in most cases.
"The question I ask is, how as a police officer can I keep two people who know each other from arguing?" said Kevin Masters, deputy chief with the Kansas City Police Department. "When 81 percent of the violence is based on an argument, and 75 percent know each other, I don't know that there's a lot I can do."
Masters said he believes there are more guns on the streets than in the past, and that though there are some gun-rights folks armed under the state's conceal-carry law, most of guns in the inner cities are in the hands of people with less than good intentions.
"Most of the guns are not being carried by law-abiding citizens, but by thugs and thug wannabes," he said. "When two thug wannabes get into an argument and have guns, what's going to happen next? Many of them are acting before they think about the consequences of their actions."
Masters believes many people also carry guns in the urban core because they think they need them for protection. He said there's a slogan on the streets that says, "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by five," meaning it's better to be armed in case of a confrontation and deal with legal implications of shooting someone than to be killed because the person wasn't carrying a gun.
Also contributing to Missouri's high numbers is a subculture of violence, said John Hamilton, a former Kansas City police officer who now is an associate professor of criminal justice at Park University.
Hamilton, who worked patrol from 1976 until retiring in 2003, said many blacks in the Kansas City's urban core grow up in an environment where they can't show weakness or back down from a confrontation, lest they be seen as vulnerable.
"When you look at it, where homicides occur will tell you one story," Hamilton said. "A more important story is, where did they grow up? If they grew up in suburbia, where it's not that way, it's one thing. If they've grown up in an urban core setting, there's a different kind of law of the land. You can't back down. You can't say you're sorry. You have to be in charge. The reaction to confrontation tends to be violence."
The Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that supports gun control efforts, uses supplementary homicide data provided at the local level to the FBI for its reports.
Indiana had the third-highest black homicide rate in Wednesday's report, at 28.71 per 100,000, followed by Michigan with a rate of 24.5 and Tennessee with a rate of 22.59.