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 Mr. 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 Mr. Pah, clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.
Other key findings include:
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 Mr. 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.”