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MATTHEW BOOSE: America’s “gun violence problem” isn’t about guns
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Two Yale studies on gun violence justify something conservatives have said for years about gun crime: closer communities are less violent.
Researchers in a 2014 study trained residents of communities plagued by gun crime to interview their neighbors. They discovered that social cohesion and gun violence are inversely related. Another study discovered that gun violence, far from being a random event, follows strong social patterns within ethnic minority communities. In other words, gun violence has a significant social dimension.
These studies undercut the liberal view that fixing gun violence is just a matter of policy. To gun control advocates, gun violence is a matter of firearm access that can only be solved by managerial reform.
But a shooting takes more than a gun. For every gun homicide, there is the shooter behind the gun, and there is the community he lives in. What if, instead, the solution could come from the ground up?
Close communities less violent
A 2014 Yale study argues that communities with greater social cohesion have lower rates of gun violence. These findings are not surprising, but they confirm what many conservatives have long suspected about broken communities:
[Researchers] studied neighborhoods in New Haven, Connecticut with high crime statistics. They trained 17 community members in the Newhallville and West River neighborhoods in research and survey methods to gather data from about 300 of their own neighbors. This community-based participatory research — conducted during summer 2014 — helped to build local engagement within these neighborhoods.
Over half of neighbors surveyed knew none or a few of their neighbors. Almost all of the study participants had heard a gun shot, two-thirds of them had a friend or family member hurt by a violent act, and nearly 60% had a friend or family member killed.
The researchers concluded that social cohesion is inversely related to gun violence. Gun violence plagues communities in a cyclical fashion: violence breaks down social cohesion, which leads to more violence. Per the abstract:
Living in communities with persistent gun violence is associated with negative social, behavioral, and health outcomes, analogous to those of a natural disaster.
A social disease
If you think of a community like an organism, then gun violence is like a cancer spreading through certain social networks within the community.
The study […] determined that an individual within these social networks was at the greatest risk of being shot within a period of about 125 days after their “infector,” the person most responsible for exposing the subject to gun violence, was the subject of gun violence. These results provide evidence that gun violence is not just an epidemic, but it has specific network patterns that might provide plausible opportunities for interventions.
Therefore, random mass shootings – the ones that grab headlines – are not an accurate cross-sectional sample of gun violence. As the researchers point out, gun violence is far from random:
Young, minority males between the ages of 18-24 are the most likely victims of gun homicide, with rates of gun homicide more than fifty times higher than the overall U.S. average and ten times higher than white men in the same age range. Gun homicide also concentrates in small geographic areas within major U.S. cities, especially socially and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Of course, when a spree killing happens at a concert or a nightclub, we are left with the impression that gun violence is random. If gun violence is random, then all populations are affected equally. It is convenient, to the gun control advocate, for people to fear that they can be shot anywhere at anytime; if everyone is endangered equally, the only way to keep people safe is to tighten gun control.
It’s not just arithmetic
This research shows that the solution to gun violence is not as facile as liberals think. Or, perhaps, it’s even simpler than they think.
People are social creatures. Is it any wonder that communities plagued by anomie are more violent?
Liberals often argue that America’s gun problem is simply a matter of access and supply. If we introduce more regulations, gun deaths will go down.
But if that were the case, we’d expect neighborhoods in which households are more likely to have guns to suffer from more gun violence. That’s not backed up by the facts.
According to a Pew survey, while African Americans are more likely to die in a gun homicide, they are about half as likely as whites to have a gun in the home. Whereas the majority of white gun deaths are suicides, the trend is just the opposite among African Americans, where most gun deaths are homicides.
It’s the culture, stupid
This makes sense in light of the Yale studies. Black communities suffer from greater social stress.
Americans do have easier access to guns than the citizens of most nations on Earth, and American civilians do own more firearms than their counterparts in any other country. That is not a total causal explanation for gun violence.
Gun freedom advocates often invoke Switzerland to make the case for liberty. Gun ownership in the country is among the highest in the world, but America dwarfs Switzerland’s gun homicide rate. Gun control advocates point out that a one-to-one comparison between America and Switzerland proves nothing, because Switzerland is a vastly different country from the United States.
But that is entirely the point. Gun violence is not just a matter of policy; culture plays a decisive role.
A solution cannot come down from a bureaucratic agency at the top. Bureaucrats are more disconnected from the communities they regulate from afar than the citizens in those communities are from one another.
Maybe, instead of looking to reform the law, we should focus on rebuilding our communities. Fix the culture first, and the violence will drop.
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