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The Paradox in America's Treatment of Gun Violence

Where we worry most, we can help the least; and where we could help most, we care the least. Stopping gun violence is all about knowing where to start.

(Photo: Donjiy/Shutterstock)

America does not have a gun violence problem. Not because violence committed with guns is uncommon—as Nicholas Kristof frames it in the New York Times, more Americans have died from gun violence since John F. Kennedy's assassination than the number of Americans killed in all wars since independence. Rather, instead of the monolithic scourge that Kristof and others lament, America has many gun violence problems. As becomes clear nearly every time the term appears on a news ticker (or is absent), not all gun violence is considered equal. American gun violence is really, at most, a term that refers to a group of vastly different forms of violence that use the same weapon: sociologically, psychologically, criminologically, the differences abound.

Still, there’s no doubt that “gun violence” holds two dominant connotations: one national, one local. It comes to national attention at the hands of mass public shootings, the tragedy at Umpqua Community College just the latest jolt to coverage of gun violence. The ability of one individual to rupture social order—to repudiate peaceable co-existence in the most violent way possible—feels somehow more alarming than private acts of violence, where the victims can sometimes appear already implicated, either by behavior (relationship to a perpetrator) or by context (a crime-ridden neighborhood). That’s what characterizes urban, gang-involved, gun violence of the largely local type: the Baltimores, Detroits, and Chicagos, where violence seems to be out of control, but inevitably less worrying, somehow less pressing to the majority of the country.

When mass shootings happen, they invite political response, and every one since Columbine has invited solutions from nearly every school of social thinking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Mass shootings don’t actually happen all that often—and the very unpredictability that makes them our greatest concern is also what makes them such poor substance for strategic prevention. 

Meanwhile, urban shootings continue, are mourned, briefly decried, then chalked up as a consequence of a certain way of life.

But mass shootings don’t actually happen all that often—and the very unpredictability that makes them our greatest concern is also what makes them such poor substance for strategic prevention. On the other hand, the urban group-involved gun violence that is far more common than mass shootings–and that much of America has accepted as an unavoidable reality—is examinable and preventable precisely because of its repetition. This is the gun violence paradox.

But that paradox also has an upside: a large and growing body of research on gun violence proves that not all gun violence is unpredictable or “unthinkable,” and that addressing at least one type need not be so daunting. There’s something we can do about the urban gun violence occurring every day across the country—but we have to care enough to do it.

There is probably no other phenomenon in America—certainly no other cause of death—that receives as much attention as mass shootings. Despite the real or perceived increased frequency and lethality of these events, death from mass shootings still constitutes less than one percent of all gun homicides. In fact, the majority of all gun deaths (60.5 percent) are suicides, and the vast majority of the rest are the result of “interpersonal conflicts” or “relationship problems.” And yet, while these incidents occur in nearly every single community across the map, we ignore them all too often in favor of each mass shooting.

The outraged energy of each mass shooting event is expended on contriving strategies to prevent the next one. The rarity of these events, though, creates a small record that tends to defy reliable interpretation. Reviews of the literature suggest that mental health services, warning signs, video game regulation, gun control, and armed guards are all ineffective responses to mass shootings. The nature of these shootings, often correlated with mental illness or extremism makes them, by definition, aberrational. A recent report by Mark Follman in Mother Jones cites experts on “threat assessment” that disputes this claim: some profilers believe that adequate training in common warning signs can lead to timely interventions. Still, as Follman acknowledges, mass shootings suffer from a small number of case studies that share warning signs that are broadly attributable. “We know that many mass shooters are young white men with acute mental health issues. The problem is, such broad traits do little to help threat assessment teams identify who will actually attack,” he writes. “Legions of young men love violent movies or first-person shooter games, get angry about school, jobs, or relationships, and suffer from mental health afflictions. The number who seek to commit mass murder is tiny.”

Even if we could find more specific common factors between, say, the young males that have committed school shootings, as Malcolm Gladwell recently probed, there wouldn’t be nearly enough cases to constitute a robust pattern nor dictate a meaningful course of action. The individual circumstances of each rampage are so disparate, so rarely precisely duplicated, that any prevention strategy is hapless: Do we militarize all schools because mass shootings can happen anywhere? Do we institutionalize or conduct surveillance on all mentally ill individuals because some unstable boys turned to guns? Not only would these techniques likely be ineffective at preventing future cases—they would do nothing to prevent all the other shootings. As a form of violence, the context for mass shooting is hardly predictable—but the method is never in doubt.

That’s why both the academics who find the problem inscrutable and the threat assessors who deem it understandable ultimately agree that there is really one clear path to “eliminating the risk of mass murder.” Simply put, you can’t have mass shootings if you don’t have people shooting. Beyond serious, federal-level gun control reforms nowhere near reality every other approach seems, in Follman’s words, to be “an improvisational solution of last resort.” Ironically, though there might be panacea—sweeping federal level gun control reforms—there are not reliable individual treatments. Like most magic elixirs, this one seems to be illusory.

The same frustration, thankfully, does not apply to urban gun violence—America’s other, more common, public firearm crisis. Urban gun violence, unlike the intermittent bursts of mass shootings, present at once an unconscionable and unique level of data, capable of rendering precise and practical findings. This type of gun violence is not random, is not unpredictable, and has proven methods for prevention.

That starts with location: unlike trying to protect all schools or all movie theaters, we are well aware of where urban gun violence will unfold. Any lay observer might now, correctly, say that gun violence is particularly prevalent in poor urban neighborhoods. That’s certainly true, but doesn’t fully capture the startling concentration of crime and violence. Research has long shown that gun violence can be concentrated in particular states, or cities, or even neighborhoods. Recent findings suggest that it’s often even clearer—that particular intersections and blocks disproportionately encounter gun violence. One study, by Anthony Braga, Andrew Papachristos*, and David Hureau, found that, in Boston, from 1980 to 2008, only three percent of all street segments and intersections were responsible for more than 50 percent of the city’s gun violence. Though one might counter that one case hardly proves a rule, findings published earlier this year present compelling longitudinal, national evidence of this phenomenon of “microgeographic crime hot spots.” David Weisburd, the director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, found that, in a set of five large and three small cities, about 50 percent of crime occurred at four percent of street segments, and that a full quarter of crime occurs at less than 1.5 percent of street segments (and that concentration doesn’t vanish over time). These findings, of course, will come as no surprise to residents of neighborhoods that suffer this violence daily—but perhaps the scientific explanation of this reality can start to lend greater resources to what is really a graspable problem.

What’s more, we know a whole lot about who is most likely to be the perpetrator of the violence: a very small subset of a city’s population organized in “groups” (gangs, crews, sets) that are also, unlike mass shooters, often already well known to law enforcement. Empirical work done in dozens of city has found that individuals involved in these “groups” constitute, at most, 0.5 percent of a city’s population but be responsible for two-thirds of its shootings and homicides. These individuals, mostly young minority males, are—contrary to lone shooters—well known to their community and public about threats of violence. Often the “warning sign” for their gun homicides is nothing other than gun carrying, usage, and victimization.

We also know who is most likely to be a victim. For one, specific behaviors increase the chances of being shot. While people previously involved in gun crimes face moderately heightened risk of being shot, gang members are devastatingly susceptible to firearm violence. They are from 100 to nearly 1,000 times more likely to be murdered than anyone else in the general population. Moreover, they are the nucleus of social networks that contain shocking proportions of a city’s victims. Looking at six years of gun violence data in Chicago, researchers found that 70 percent of all Chicago gunshot victims from 2006 to 2012 could be placed in “co-offending networks containing less than 6 percent of the city’s population.” Risk isn’t evenly distributed either: “[E]very 1 percent increase in exposure to victims in one’s immediate social network increases the odds of victimization by 1.1 percent.” Being close to gun violence already is the most significant predictor of becoming a victim. Far from randomness, a 2012 study in one Boston community found “each [social] network step away from a gunshot victim decreases one’s odds of getting shot by approximately 25 percent ... an effect above and beyond the saturation of gunshot victimization in one’s peer network, age, prior criminal activity, and other individual and network variables.”

This social correlation makes sense: Our social networks dictate how and where we spend our time, place us within the rippling effects of our associates’ actions, and alter and affect our own behavior. Given the unconscionable levels of violence concentrated in many urban communities, it is imperative that we make sense of the influences, contexts, locations, and patterns that make it happen.

Knowing how it happens also means knowing how it can be stopped: concentrated communication and intervention. “Focused deterrence” is one approach that has demonstrated the possibility of directly confronting and reducing urban, group-led gun violence. Using this type of strategy, collaborations of police, government, and community insist to groups of offenders that violence must stop, offer consequences if it does not and help and services to those who want it. Drawing from the fact that this type of violence is the result of understandable forces—personal disputes, group beefs, or, more rarely than one would think, economic incentives—the strategy increases the cost of violence for settling these disputes. While meta-analyses had found this strategy to be at least correlated with significant violence reductions in many cities, city selection and causation remained somewhat open questions. This summer, new evidence extended that record to historically violent, troubled cities. In New Orleans—whose citywide homicide rate since the mid 1970s has been twice “that of any other previously evaluated focused deterrence intervention site”—their Gun Violence Reduction Strategy directly lead to a 32.1 percent reduction in group member involved homicides; total firearm-related homicides and non-lethal firearm assaults both decreased by about 16 percent. A similar intervention in Chicago—also communicating incentives and disincentives to known offenders—decreased the shooting victimization rate of contacted groups by 32 percent compared to groups who did not receive the message. When you know who is likely to shoot and why they are likely to do so, it seems, decreasing gun violence can become a manageable and replicable task.

But remember: Reducing gun violence in America, in any way, starts by recognizing that we don’t face a single concept called “gun violence.” Lone shooters without histories of violence or guns share very little with co-offending networks; putting armed guards at every school to defray an attack is less wise than targeting patrols to crime micro-hotspots. Though any type of gun violence may be referred to as “senseless,” current scholarship—and common sense—can help us make sense of what kind of gun crime we can predict and stop, and what kinds we can't. We don’t know, and can’t know, almost anything about mass shooting events—but we do know, and can know, almost everything about the contexts, causes, and prevention of a lot of gun violence, particularly group-involved urban gun violence.

Yet, as long as the paradox holds, it receives a fraction of the attention mass shootings receive: when things get really bad, a dose of consternation from the halls of power, from the national conscience, to the hardest neighborhoods in America. As long as the paradox holds, devastating incidents of mass violence will absorb the majority of our concern, and an ebb and tide of fruitless efforts (at least barring unlikely national changes in gun culture and policy, or national socioeconomic reforms). Breaking this natural inclination is hard, but it ought not to be as hard as continuing to watch America, with a peace plan in hand at war with itself.


*Andrew Papachristos is affiliated as a research advisor with the author's current employer, the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), an organization that researches and supports violence reduction strategies.