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Social Networks Help Explain Gun Violence

Social Networks Help Explain Gun Violence

Andrew V. Papachristos

Tragic acts of violence like the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, CT, or the slaying of 15-year old Hadiya Pendalton in Chicago, IL, redirect political and public attention towards gun violence. And, indeed, gun violence remains a pervasive problem. Each year, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. are shot and killed by another person, and another 60,000 are treated for non-fatal gunshot injuries caused by assaults.

Statistics like these and images of innocent victims fuel the notion that violence is both pervasive and random. If gun violence can happen in an elementary school classroom or to an innocent adolescent girl standing in a public park with her friends, it can happen anywhere or to anyone. Yet, tragic as these events and statistics are, gun violence is far from random. Gun violence is highly concentrated among particular segments of the population and in particular places.

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.

Co-Offending network of high-risk individuals in a Boston community, 2008. Each of the nodes represents a unique individual (N = 763). Each of the ties represents an observation of the individuals engaging in criminal behavior. Red nodes represent the victims of fatal or non-fatal gunshot injuries, and these are clustered within the network.

Research by the author and colleagues has recently uncovered that the gun violence is also severely concentrated within social networks. In particular, gun violence tends to concentrate within small social networks of individuals in high-crime communities and populations. For example, in a recent study of one Boston, MA community, Papachristos et al. (2012) found that 85% of all fatal and non-fatal gunshot injuries occurred in a social network of N = 763 individuals, that is, in less than 6% of the community’s population (see figure on left). Likewise, in a study of one high-crime Chicago community, Papachristos and Wildeman (2014) found that 41% of all gun homicides occurred in a single network containing less than 4% of the community’s population. Such concentration of gun violence in social networks has important implications for understanding America’s gun violence epidemic, and for doing something about it.