Shootings in US schools are linked to increased unemployment

January 30, 2017
school
Larkmead School. Credit: CC-BY-SA-2.5,2.0,1.0

A rigorous Northwestern University study of a quarter-century of data has found that economic insecurity is related to the rate of gun violence at K-12 and postsecondary schools in the United States. When it becomes more difficult for people coming out of school to find jobs, the rate of gun violence at schools increases.

The interdisciplinary study by data scientists Adam R. Pah and Luís Amaral and sociologist John L. Hagan reveals a persistent connection over time between unemployment and the occurrence of school shootings in the country as a whole, across various regions of the country and within affected cities, including Chicago and New York City.

"The link between education and work is central to our expectations about economic opportunity and upward mobility in America," said Hagan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. "Our study indicates that increases in gun violence in our schools can result from disappointment and despair during periods of increased unemployment, when getting an education does not necessarily lead to finding work."

Frequent school shootings have been a major concern in American society for decades, but the causes have defied understanding. The Northwestern researchers used data from 1990 to 2013 on both gun violence in U.S. schools and economic metrics, including unemployment, to get some answers.

"Our findings highlight the importance of economic opportunity for the next generation and suggest there are proactive actions we could take as a society to help decrease the frequency of gun violence," said Pah, clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.

Other key findings include:

  • While Chicago is singled out in the study as one of the six cities with the most incidents from 1990 to 2013, Chicago schools are not any more dangerous than schools in other large cities.
  • Gun violence at schools has not become more deadly over time.
  • Most shootings are targeted, with the shooter intending to harm a specific person.
  • Gang-related violence and lone mass shooters comprise only small fractions of the gun violence that occurs at U.S. schools. Gang-related violence constitutes 6.6% of all incidents.
  • The results suggest that during periods of heightened unemployment, increased gun violence may be a growing risk in American college and university settings.

The study, "Economic Insecurity and the Rise in Gun Violence at US Schools," will be published Jan. 30 by the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The research team also found the rate of gun violence at schools has changed over time. The most recent period studied (2007-2013) has a higher frequency of incidents than the preceding one (1994-2007), contradicting previous work in this area. This is a unique contribution made possible because of the researchers' backgrounds in data science and modeling.

"Our work helps us understand why the frequency of gun violence at schools changes, not necessarily why gun violence at schools in the United States exists at all," said Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering.

In the last 25 years, there have been two elevated periods of gun violence at U.S. schools, the researchers found; 2007-2013 was largely due to events at postsecondary schools while 1992-1994 more often involved events at K-12 schools.

The Northwestern study stands apart from earlier studies on gun violence in U.S. schools by bringing into play knowledge about the school-to-work transition in American society.

"Once we consider how important schools are to American ideas about economic opportunity and upward mobility, we can better understand why school settings are revealed in our research as focal points of violent responses to increased unemployment," said Hagan, who also is a research professor at the American Bar Foundation. "Prior research about gun violence in schools has not adequately analyzed these connections."

How the study was conducted

There have been a number of other studies on this topic, but the previous data sources used were incomplete and biased in their coverage of the school shooting events, Pah said. Also, the definition of gun violence at school varied among creators of these datasets.

Pah collected these previously used data sets and collated them into a single data set. He and undergraduate and graduate student co-authors then individually sourced and read reports for each event to make sure it was actually an incident of gun violence at a school. The process yielded 379 events meeting the researchers' strict criteria, and two additional events were found, for a total of 381 events for the final data set.

"We spent days doing nothing but reading about violence at schools, which is quite possibly the saddest thing I've had to do for research," Pah said.

The researchers focused on all gun violence at schools, not only mass shootings. They used the following criteria for an event to be included in the study: (1) the shooting must involve a firearm being discharged, even if by accident; (2) it must occur on a school campus; and (3) it must involve students or school employees, either as perpetrators, bystanders or victims.

Next, the researchers evaluated the timing of these events against multiple indicators of economic distress, including unemployment, the foreclosure rate and consumer confidence. They then hypothesized that increased are a response to increasing and tested that hypothesis in two additional ways.

The results strongly support the hypothesis that a breakdown in the -to-work transition contributes to an increase in in U.S. schools, the authors write.

Explore further: Nearly every American will know a victim of gun violence, study finds

More information: Economic insecurity and the rise in gun violence at US schools, Nature Human Behaviour, nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/s41562-016-0040

Related Stories

Recommended for you

New paper answers causation conundrum

November 17, 2017

In a new paper published in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI Professor Jessica Flack offers a practical answer to one of the most significant, and most confused questions in evolutionary ...

Chance discovery of forgotten 1960s 'preprint' experiment

November 16, 2017

For years, scientists have complained that it can take months or even years for a scientific discovery to be published, because of the slowness of peer review. To cut through this problem, researchers in physics and mathematics ...

10 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rhugh1066
3 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2017
I grew up dirt poor. We literally never knew whether we'd have food on the table that day or not. And yet, even the thought of taking a gun to school simply never occurred to me. Nor to anyone else in that time and place. This article sounds suspiciously like elaborate excuse making. The sheer over-arching wrong of murder is more than enough preventative for most people everywhere. The answers I believe lie elsewhere.
katesisco
not rated yet Feb 05, 2017
I also am of the post war generation and only after I married did we see anything on tv other than the Lone Ranger and hear Elvis singing about the ghetto, a revelation to most of us.
So, the article seems to be advocating vocational schools which I strongly support but carefully avoids saying so. After all they posit unemployment as the reason and then seek to support it.
Where do that leave us? Big business has never been interested in educating the populace as employees; they have only sought to maximize government supplements for growth and that is to move the business to foreign countries.
There has never been a concerted effort to build a work force suited to the businesses.
SamB
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2017
I grew up dirt poor. We literally never knew whether we'd have food on the table that day or not. And yet, even the thought of taking a gun to school simply never occurred to me. Nor to anyone else in that time and place. This article sounds suspiciously like elaborate excuse making. The sheer over-arching wrong of murder is more than enough preventative for most people everywhere. The answers I believe lie elsewhere.


I agree wholeheartedly with rhugh. Millions of people were dirt poor during the hungry thirty's and crime by these disadvantaged was almost non-existent. Yes, look for answers elsewhere!
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2017
We literally never knew whether we'd have food on the table that day or not. And yet, even the thought of taking a gun to school simply never occurred to me.

If you don't have food on the table you probably can't spare the cash for a gun in any case.

But I get what you're saying. There's really no point at which "I'll go on a killing spree" makes any kind of rational sense.

There is something to this perceived upward mobility. While it is one of the core 'beliefs' of americans that you can make it if you just apply yourself hard enough the reality is different. Americal is one of the most stratified countries of all the industrial nations (only beaten out by the UK)
https://en.wikipe...ountries

Maybe it is that rude awakening between fantasy and reality that makes some people despair. A solution would be to just be open about the lack of social mobility up front in the media.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2017
If you don't have food on the table you probably can't spare the cash for a gun in any case
"Guns will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no guns." - fabulous furry freak posse

Tribalism. Overgrowth produces conflict over resources which exacerbates tensions among groups whether they be nations or street gangs.

What we are seeing is group selection at work.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2017
Pretty simple really. The shooters weren't brought up to respect other individuals...
The problem is parenting (or lack of)...
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Feb 06, 2017
The something else going on is the riling up of the goobers to achieve the ends of the Fascists. Reagan told the goobers it was not their fault they were uneducated and stupid, but the work of Commies or something. He and the Bush Boys got them angry, while they take away the social benefits needed in the Red States.

While the Republicans refused to pass a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill, or a transportation bill, so Obama would get no credit, they hurt their very base, who is unaware of what is going on.

Look at the interviews in the Bible Belt, and see it is not their fault for being manipulated, it must be them Liberals!
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2017
The something else going on is the riling up of the goobers to achieve the ends of the Fascists. Reagan told the goobers it was not their fault they were uneducated and stupid, but the work of Commies or something. He and the Bush Boys got them angry, while they take away the social benefits needed in the Red States.

While the Republicans refused to pass a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill, or a transportation bill, so Obama would get no credit, they hurt their very base, who is unaware of what is going on.

Look at the interviews in the Bible Belt, and see it is not their fault for being manipulated, it must be them Liberals!

WAY over the top, George... Go have a couple of shots and think about what you just said...
gkam
1 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2017
Only part way there, Gyre.

And I don't drink much any more.

But I do think that is exactly what is going on. Don't you?
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2017
If you don't have food on the table you probably can't spare the cash for a gun in any case
My grandpop fed his family for 3 years on deer meat and his garden during the depression.
And I don't drink much any more
-But you DO smoke a whole lot of pot dont you? For medicinal purposes only...

"Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head"

-reminds me of a t shirt I used to have-

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.