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In Sutherland Springs, a Reminder That Small Towns Aren’t Safer

The myth that small towns are more safe than big cities is only one part of the picture.

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Movies, TV shows, the elderly, small-government conservatives, and big compound liberals have long echoed the myth that small-town life is safer, calmer and less dangerous than life in the big city. That myth, disproven by criminologists and numerous data sets, is occasionally ripped open by tragedies. On Sunday, a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a small suburb about 30 miles outside of San Antonio, served as a horrific reminder that population density and violence are not neatly correlated.

Wilson County, the county that Sutherland Springs resides, boasts (or, rather, boasted) a murder rate far below Texas and the rest of the country. So it makes sense that people communicated shock through the “I didn’t believe it could happen here”-style quotes that ran in newspapers across the country. But breaking down gun violence numbers in rural areas reveals a disturbing pattern: death by firearm is more common, not less, in rural areas for children under 20 and for people over 45 years old. City-dwellers between the ages of 20-44 are more likely to die by guns. (That number looks different for the non-gang affiliated.)

And while gun-deaths are common in rural and urban areas, there is a troubling link between schools in commuter towns and mass shootings. Studies dating back to the early 2000s have tried to link shootings that have occurred in small towns: Littleton, Colorado; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Pearl, Mississippi; Moses Lake, Washington; Springfield, Oregon. The murderers, in each case, shared some experiences: social rejection, suicidal ideation, violent outburst. The study also found that the most typical school shooter is a white teenage boy. There are plenty of young men who meet this description in small towns, where social rejection can be far more complete and far less anonymous. Devin Kelley was not a teenager, but he otherwise fit the bill. He had experienced social rejection and abused his wife and daughter.

Reports show that kids who are bullied are three times as likely to have access to a loaded gun. Location doesn’t matter.

Recent shootings, like the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut, show that there’s no difference in safety for our children depending on where they grew up. This a hard thing to confront, particularly for parents: There is no way to guarantee the safety of your family. And while there are many, many nation-wide programs that are designed to protect people in public spaces of worship, or in schools, or in businesses, from shootings, the fact of the matter is that gun violence is pervasive. It won’t be stopped by well-thought-out safety programs and drillsIt won’t be stopped by the close-knit social fabric of a small-town. 

It’s also worth noting that are other ways in which living in rural areas can be more dangerous. Injury deaths, like deaths caused by accidental shootings, car accidents, or falls, are 20 percent more likely to occur in rural areas than in bigger cities. This is largely explained by the fact that there are longer drives to hospitals and, in general, fewer experienced EMTs. It is a hidden danger that shows itself only after the worst thing happens.