School shootings in the US rise in tandem with unemployment, a massive study shows

Not coincidence.
Not coincidence.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Burton
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It’s long been speculated that increases in unemployment bring about upticks in violence, whether domestic or societal. A massive new study out of Northwestern University cinches that relationship by examining one particular type of violence—school shootings in the US.

Published recently in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, the study compiled 25 years of data from American schools ranging from the kindergarten to postsecondary level, via national and regional databases. Researchers then matched all the instances of gun violence against several indicators of economic distress, such as national unemployment, the foreclosure rate, and consumer confidence.

Northwestern data scientist Adam Pah, who co-authored the study, tells Quartz he first had the idea for the project when he realized that “school shootings” were being defined in a myriad of ways by different researchers. This study only included cases that:

  1. occurred on a school campus,
  2. involved the discharging of a firearm, and
  3. included students or school employees as bystanders, perpetrators, or victims.

For that reason, the study is one of the most rigorous examinations of campus gun violence and unemployment to date. Researchers found a link—and a startlingly close one, at that.

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“The feelings that joblessness causes—despair, disappointment—come from the sociology literature, and they’ve been established before us,” Pah says. “Loss of self-esteem. Increased negative action.”

Periods of economic insecurity also tend to exacerbate any feelings of isolation, loss, or hopelessness that may already be present in an individual, Pah says. The findings also suggest that the “breakdown in the school-to-work transition” (i.e. the disillusionment that students feel, when faced with a potential lack of jobs) contributes to an increase in US gun violence—but more work needs to be done to confirm such a causation.

The relationship bears all the more exploration given the Trump administration’s stated desire to loosen gun ownership laws.