According to Amnesty International, more than 1 billion firearms are in global circulation. Most of those guns belong to private individuals while the rest belong to the military and law enforcement agencies. Gun violence is a serious issue in many places. In the United States, guns recently outpaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for children. What drives gun violence? In this article, we’ll explore 15 of the root causes.
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Poverty is a root cause of so many serious issues in society. Gun violence is just one example. According to data from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States experienced an increase in firearm homicides between 2019 and 2020. Upon closer examination, the counties with the highest poverty levels saw a higher increase in firearm homicides compared to countries with the lowest poverty levels. The link between gun violence and poverty remains strong even after controlling for race, ethnicity, sex, age, and other factors.
#2. Income inequality
Income inequality is the gap between individuals’ or households’ income. The wider the gap, the more issues emerge. Gentrification, which is when wealthier people move into a lower-income area and displace current residents, is just one expression of income inequality. It can increase the risk of gun violence. According to one study, gentrified neighborhoods have a 62% higher firearm injury rate than non-gentrified neighborhoods. The reasons why are complex, but could include the social disruption that comes with gentrification. People experience higher levels of stress and fear as their neighborhoods undergo change and costs go up.
#3. Poor education
When people receive a poor-quality education, they’re more likely to face limited job opportunities, poverty, poor health and other serious, long-term issues. Education and poverty go hand in hand; poverty makes it hard to get a good education, whereas a good education can help people leave poverty. Because of its strong links to economic instability, poor-quality education also contributes to an environment where gun violence is more likely.
#4. Housing instability
Housing is a human right, but when people can’t access safe, affordable housing, the risk of gun violence increases. According to a Kansas City Star article about the city, experts named housing issues, like blight, evictions and homelessness, as one of the factors driving up gun violence. Without stable, safe housing, people experience high levels of stress and are more likely to arm themselves. People also struggle with more mental health issues, which can increase their risk for suicide.
Interested in housing justice? Read our article here.
#5. Lack of good employment
Unemployment (or underemployment) plays a big role in poverty and income inequality. When people are stressed financially, they may turn to risky, illegal activities that involve firearms. According to a study examining unemployment and crime during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found that “economically motivated” crimes can involve violence. They also wrote that employment can act as a buffer because it generates income, helps people form stronger bonds and reduces how much time people have to engage in crime. Another study found that the increase in unemployment during the first months of the pandemic was associated with an increase in firearm homicide and violence in 16 American cities.
#6. Lack of affordable healthcare
In places without Universal Health Coverage, the cost of healthcare is a serious concern for many people. It not only forces them to delay or avoid care entirely, but it can lead to bankruptcy. According to a 2019 article, medical issues are a key factor for ⅔ of those who file for bankruptcy in the United States. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization estimates that about 20 years of global progress toward Universal Health Coverage was lost. When people don’t have affordable healthcare, they’re more likely to slip into poverty, struggle with poor mental health, turn to substances or deal with other risk factors for gun violence.
Want to learn more about healthcare? Check out our article on health equity.
#7. Gun availability
One of the root causes of gun violence is very simple: the availability of guns increases the risk of violence. According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, a review of the literature found that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide in high-income countries like the United States. This makes sense; when something is easily available, it’s more likely to be used. Accidental shootings become more likely, as well. While it’s difficult to collect precise data, children in the US are at a higher risk of unintentional gun injury and death compared to other high-income countries.
#8. Weak gun control laws
The United States has the highest rate of death by firearms, and weak control laws are part of the reason why. The Center for American Progress examined some of the states with the weakest laws and what sort of gun violence they experience. Mississippi, which has the country’s weakest gun laws, also has the country’s highest firearm death rate. In 2020, the state also had the highest rate of crime gun exports. Nationwide, weak gun laws increase the risk of mass shootings. A 2019 study found that states with weak gun laws and higher gun ownership have higher rates of mass shootings.
#9. Gun trafficking
Gun trafficking is the illegal movement of guns. It’s a major issue in the United States. According to American Progress, trafficked guns often appear at crime scenes. From 2010 to 2020, the amount of out-of-state guns involved in violent crimes went up around 10% in New York. In Haiti, trafficked guns and ammunition are a big part of the increase in gang violence, which has contributed to murders, kidnappings and displacements. According to data, homicides and kidnappings doubled in 2022.
#10. Exposure to violence
Violence has a cyclical effect. When people are exposed to violence, they’re more likely to experience – and even perpetuate – more violence in the future. According to research, a study examining 500 Black American youth revealed that direct exposure to violence predicted whether an individual engaged in gun-related crimes at a later time. In another study, ⅓ of survey respondents who had been exposed to gun violence said they were now considering buying a gun. Only 1% already owned guns, which shows how exposure to violence can influence people to purchase firearms and possibly endanger themselves, family and friends.
#11. Poor mental health
Mental health is often scapegoated as the sole cause of gun violence, but the reality is most people with mental illnesses are never violent. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness only contributes to about 4% of all violence, not just gun violence. However, the risk for gun violence does increase when people have a history of physical and sexual abuse, or trauma, which can also cause mental illness. Mental illness may not be a significant factor for violence against others, but it is a predictor of suicide. According to a Stanford study, owning a handgun was associated with a “dramatically elevated” risk of suicide. Guns tend to be very effective as a method of death. Using a gun for a suicide attempt results in death nearly 85% of the time.
#12. Drug involvement
Drug involvement and guns have a close association. Many people who are involved with drugs in some way (use and/or sales) also have access to guns, which increases the risk for violence. In one study on opioid use, researchers found that those dependent on opioids were more likely to carry guns, commit gun violence or be victims of gun violence than those dependent on alcohol. The reasons vary but often have to do with feelings of safety. Those who use drugs struggle with fear and stress, so owning a gun can seem like a protective measure.
#13. Alcohol abuse
Drug use comes up a lot in discussions about gun violence, but alcohol is a serious factor, as well. According to research from the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, around ⅓ of gun homicide perpetrators had drunk heavily before the murder, while 30% of gun homicide victims had been drinking. Heavy drinking is also a factor in around ¼ of gun suicides. Research suggests that “acute and chronic” alcohol consumption can reduce a person’s inhibitions, trigger violent impulses and make them less likely to assess threats properly. Alcohol and guns are a dangerous combination, and while the solution isn’t to ban alcohol, it does need to be examined as a factor in gun violence.
#14. Violent misogyny
In the United States, more men than women die from gun violence, but women and girls are often targeted. According to research, around 53 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner every month. If an abusive partner has access to guns, they’re five times more likely to kill their female victim. Violent misogyny is also closely linked to mass shootings. One study found that around ⅓ of mass shooters from 2014-2017 were suspected of domestic violence.
#15. Distrust of law enforcement
Policing in the United States has deep roots in violent racism extending into the present day, which fuels distrust of police within the communities they’re supposed to be serving. According to a report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a lack of trust between law enforcement and communities drives gun violence across the United States. Issues like police brutality, unsolved shootings and over-policing make people less likely to trust police and more likely to arm themselves. That distrust continues when police punish gun possession instead of gun violence. In Chicago, a 2017 investigation found that police were dropping off people in dangerous areas to coerce information about guns. This type of behavior contributes to violence.
Read more: 5 Essays about Gun Violence