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Poverty, lack of social mobility, government distrust contribute to U.S. gun violence

An analysis of shooting deaths in 2015 reveals social factors that may increase risk of death from gun violence.

By Brian P. Dunleavy
Poverty, lack of social mobility, government distrust contribute to U.S. gun violence
A study suggests these incidents may not be "random acts" but rather linked with social issues in the areas where they occur. Photo by Brett_Hondow/Pixabay

Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Shooting incidents in the United States are often described as random acts of violence.

However, a study published Tuesday in PLOS Medicine suggests otherwise, as the authors report that gun homicide rates are higher in areas in which poverty is high and the chances of working one's way up the socioeconomic ladder are low.

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"In disadvantaged communities, a lack of trust in institutions, such as police, to treat residents with respect may further lead residents to believe that the formal apparatus of social control is unjust, resulting in a greater willingness to take the law into their own hands," the author, Daniel Kim, an associate professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University, wrote in the study.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 36,000 Americans are killed each year as a result of gun violence. Gun fatalities -- including murders and suicides -- are among the leading causes of death in the country.

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To get a better understanding about the root causes of gun violence, Kim used location-linked gun homicide incident data from the U.S. from 2015. He analyzed the data within the context of state-, county-, and neighborhood-level social determinants of health with neighborhood gun homicides and mass shootings, and also took state firearm laws and other state, county, and neighborhood characteristics into account.

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The study population consisted of all 74,134 census tracts from the 2010 U.S. Census, and the analysis was based on the 13,060 firearm-related deaths reported in 2015.

In general, Kim found that counties where residents had higher levels of trust in institutions -- including the government, media and corporations -- were linked with a 19 percent reduction in the gun homicide rate and a 17 percent decline in the total number of gun homicide incidents at the neighborhood level.

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In addition, areas with high levels of social mobility, or the ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder, were associated with a 25 percent reduction gun homicide rates and a 24 percent drop in the total number of gun homicide incidents.

However, Kim also noted that neighborhoods with higher percentages of residents in poverty and males living alone were associated with 27 percent and 12 percent higher gun homicide rates, respectively.

Taken together, he noted, the analysis demonstrates that there is a "rich-poor gap" in gun homicide rates, and that levels of trust in institutions, social mobility and welfare spending may be related to neighborhood firearm homicide rates in the U.S.

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According to Kim, "further establishing the cause-and-effect nature of these associations" and addressing these social issues may help to prevent gun violence and help reverse recent downward trends in life expectancy among Americans."

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