Could it really happen here? This question torments parents every time a mass shooting wreaks havoc on a neighborhood. There have been 158 mass shootings in the United States in the past decade, including the recent rampages in Pittsburgh and California. As the body count climbs with each new massacre, the question becomes more pressing. Now, a study presented at the American College of Surgeons analyzes each of these tragedies, with an eye toward answering the question once and for all. What sort of communities are most vulnerable?
Fatherly obtained a copy of the raw data behind this study. At-risk zones appear to cluster in certain states—Washington, New York, Utah, Hawaii, California, Connecticut, Maine, and Colorado—and represent a mixture of urban and suburban areas. The common thread between at-risk states and counties is a high need for mental health services, and high reported rates of social isolation. The findings are a coup, if for no other reason than the fact that the politicized nature of gun violence so often obscures legitimate research into the causes and impacts of mass shootings. “A lot of the people who are talking about this issue in the public sphere are coming in with an agenda,” study author Dr. Stephen Markowiak, a physician and general surgery research fellow at the University of Toledo, told Fatherly. “If you take a real cursory look at the data, you can make it fit any agenda you want.”
When Markowiak and his team started their analysis, at first it appeared that areas with the most restrictive gun laws had the most mass shootings (defined as events in which a firearm is used to kill four or more people). However, this was skewed by the fact that rural areas have fewer gun laws, fewer people, and fewer shootings—perhaps due to the cultural norm of responsible gun ownership. Likewise, on the surface it looked like areas with more shootings had more mental health professionals per capita. But when the researchers dug a little deeper, they found that these regions had disproportionately high mental health demands and low access to providers. It would have been easy to lean on either dataset, to push a political agenda.
Markowiak and colleagues knew they could do better. “We believe if you bring in a robust, evidence-based, apolitical look at the data, then you can draw some real conclusions,” he says.
Using datasets obtained from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Census, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The National Institutes of Health, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Markowiak and his colleagues looked at 155 mass shootings that occurred over the past 11 years. Gun laws, urbanicity, overcrowding, access to mental health providers (and demand), social isolation, and specific gun laws were considered in searching for common threads between communities struck by tragedy.
They found that at-risk communities were 30.7 percent less rural, had higher ratios of income inequality, and that residents reported uncommonly high rates of leisure time. Overall, the chance of a mass shooting event occurring in any county nationwide in that 11-year period was 7 percent. However, communities with above average access to mental health services and a below average need there only had a 2.1 percent risk. In areas that experienced mass shootings, residents reported socializing with an average of 10.5 people in their lives they regularly talked to, or “socializations,” compared to regions that did not suffer such tragedies, where individuals socialized with 13 or more people on a regular basis.
“That might lend a little more credence to the idea that you should reach out and engage your neighbors, and if you see warning signs that they might be mentally unwell, don’t keep that information to yourself,” Markowiak says.
It’s worth noting that many counties with a high mental health need also scored very high in terms of social interaction such as Hinsdale country in Colorado and Kiowa county in Kansas.
Despite high mental health demands, residents reported having 63.61 and 55.71 people they regularly connected with. Markowiak also has ethical concerns about using this information as a predictive model and what raising the alarm bells would mean for these regions. Instead, he hopes the research can be used to convince democrats and republicans that this is not a political issue.
“It’s tough to take data that we’re looking back at and draw the conclusion that we’re going to be able to predict these things,” he says. “We want to start a conversation about this in a safe way. We want people to meet in the center and just agree that this is a problem that can be studied and we can find facts to agree on.”