Are Mass Shootings Caused by Firearm Access or Economic Inequality?


Gun violence has become a public health epidemic.  Despite countless deaths in mass shootings over the last 2 decades, the Dickey Amendment—a provision inserted into the 1996 spending bill which blocked federal funding for research on gun violence—remains on the books.  While every politician, media pundit, and policy expert “know” the solution, the answers are not that simple.  

In reality, the factors which have fueled the rise in gun violence across America are largely unknown. And if the deep-pocketed gun lobby continues pouring millions into politicians’ war chests to stifle critical gun research, we may never know.  Science must be part of the mass shooting debate.  Congress must “stop dicking around and repeal the Dickey Amendment,” to fund federal research.  

What if the premise that more guns cause more mass shootings—a contentious debate that has the left and the right locked in battle—is entirely wrong?  

Research shows that income inequality in communities with higher than average household incomes have a statistically significant relationship with the incidence of mass shootings.  This association is far stronger than the now-debunked theory that untreated mental health disorders are responsible for mass shooting events.  And while more research is necessary, it is highly likely that economic inequality increases the risk of mass shooting to a greater extent than even firearm access.  

For instance, the community of Littleton, CO—where Columbine High School is located—is among the 15% highest income neighborhoods in America. Newtown, Connecticut—a once-idyllic community where a 20-year old murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School—is located in Fairfield County, the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, yet it is also among the most unequal in terms in income distribution.  

Gun violence is not a new phenomenon, the number of deaths in children ages 12-17 by shooting increased 95% between 1980 and 1994.  Once considered a problem exclusive to poverty-stricken inner cities, today, gun violence has become pervasive in middle to upper class neighborhoods, which are no longer exempt from the unjustified carnage.  

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the three states with the highest income inequality are New York, Connecticut, and Florida.  Ironically, those same states have seen some of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.  Thirteen people were killed at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York in 2009.  On December 14, 2012, twenty children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. On June 12, 2016, In Orlando, Florida, 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded in a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub. Then, on Valentine’s Day 2018, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—in Parkland, Florida—killed seventeen and wounded seventeen more.  

While it is not well understood how economic disparity is related to the incidence of mass shootings, research indicates a perspective of ‘relative depravation,’ fuels anger, frustration, and resentment especially in young men between the ages of 15-34. Those young men living in highly income variable areas tend to view themselves as “superior,” feel more entitled, and are less willing to share resources they perceive as scarce. 

The touchstone of social mobility, income opportunity, and social justice have given way to a harsh new reality in America where radically different trajectories are determined by the circumstances into which one is born. The opportunity gap, known as the “Great Gatsby Curve”, has widened dramatically over the last 40 years.  While household income for the lower half of Americans has barely grown, those in the top 20% of earners has soared, increasing by 75%.  Those earning in the top 5 percent of Americans have seen earning growth of 95 percent. An increasing proportion of society is watching the American dream slip away.  

The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1, 2017. A man on a high floor of a hotel opened fire on a country music festival crowd, killing 58 and wounding 422 others.  Does the fact Nevada is ranked 4th highest in income inequality in the U.S. have any bearing?  Don’t you want to know if it does?  I certainly do.   

Economic inequality may have an even greater impact on the incidence of mass shootings than firearm access.  While the rampages in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio dominate the national narrative, with all due respect, America is having the wrong conversation.  Congress has a golden opportunity to right this wrong: Repealing the Dickey Amendment would – finally – fund critical research on gun violence and foster healthy conversations between policymakers, physicians, and patients.  

Niran al-Agba, MD is a pediatrician in Washington State.

8 thoughts on “Are Mass Shootings Caused by Firearm Access or Economic Inequality?

  1. This makes sense to me. I hope no new data is forthcoming, but am afraid it just might – if this hypothesis is correct. 🙁 Thanks for the write-up.

  2. Great post, Niran. I think a lot of people are failing to get your argument here …

    If we’re going to solve this godawful and seemingly insoluable problem we need to change the way we think about this (in scientific terms, our fundamental assumptions). We also need a dialogue with the people who are effectively blocking the change. The traditional explanation is that the reason we have mass shootings is that bad people have easy access to weapons because stupid, irresponsible people (most of them rednecks and white people from the Midwest and the South) refuse to do anything about it.

    It should be self-evident that this is not a very good explanation. The fact that people keep trundling it out it is a large reason we have the problem.

    To some people, most of them liberals, the fix to gun violence is obvious. Take away the guns and “presto!” you fix the problem. That’s certainly a logical argument, but it fails to take a lot of factors into account.

    Among them: the positive role that firearms play in deterring crime, the security role that firearms play in many areas of a vast, geographically-challenging country and the fact that no country in history has ever successfully disarmed a population with the level of access to weapons that we have in this country.

    Critics like to mock the “Guns give us Democracy” argument, but the simple fact is that we’ve never had a government takeover or a military junta seize control. Are guns the reason? I don’t know.

    But it’s certainly an interesting fact. Looking at the last one hundred and fifty years of modern American history, it seems kinda remarkable that our Democracy has survived. There are many moments when a government takeover should have happened. In 1968, during the Civil Rights Movement, after the September 11 attacks, after the LA riots …

    I’m not sure “But, Americans love their high school civics courses “is a satisfactory explanation.

    Am I wrong? Who knows?

    Now, I personally favor a lot of things that gun control advocates believe in: background checks, limiting or tightly controlling sales automatic weapons, screening for mental illness and aggressive behavior, but I also think we’re failing to get the whole picture. If we want to solve the problem of gun violence, or at least bring things back under control in this country, we need to aggressively work to understand what we’re dealing with and we need to start asking questions.

    The economic angle is also super interesting. Americans tend to think of economics in terms of glaring disparities between rich and poor, market dynamics and innovation. Not so much in terms of cultural and societal factors.

    To my mind, the one thing that all of the shooters have in common is the fact that their lives are desperately unhappy and that they are failing to integrate and exist peacefully in American society. They’re angry. They’re angry about what they don’t have. And what they perceive others as having. As many commenters have noted, this says something about us as a society.

    Could the reason we aren’t solving this problem be that we’re trying to solve the wrong problem?

    Are we asking the wrong questions?

    I think that’s very likely.

    Is the only way to fix the problem to “fix” our Democracy? Be very, very careful if you go there.

    You may not be coming back.

    1. We ARE asking the wrong questions. On so many things. But that is another story for a different day. What made sense to me is that the common thread amongst the shooters is anger. Mostly anger about what they don’t have and concrete opinions about who is keeping what they feel entitled to away from them. They do seem to have social integration problems in general, which is another interesting detail. It is possible in these economically disparate locales, certain personality traits make one more likely to commit a mass shooting. My point is that mass shootings are not entirely about the guns, they are also about those pulling the trigger.

  3. Thanks for this, Niran and your point is well taken that incidence rates may correlate more closely with socio-economic situation than gun ownership. However, the argument for regulating gun control doesn’t just stem from the belief that gun ownership is the primary reason for the shootings but rather that unregulated gun ownership of assault rifles, etc. makes the scale of such crimes much larger and terrifying and that it’s low-hanging fruit to address ownership of such weapons.

    But your main point stands that we must identify root causes of gun violence and that real attention needs to be paid to socio-economic disparities. Personally, I suspect that rates of gun violence may correlate with local quality of social determinants of health.

    1. I wholeheartedly support gun control and think frankly, many weapons are unnecessary. My point is that gun control regulates those of us who are law-abiding citizens who contribute to the greater good. For example, taking away my gun (if I had one, which I don’t) doesn’t really save any lives… but taking away Adam Lanza’s would have saved two dozen lives or more.
      You are right that my main point is that we are asking the wrong question and should try to identify what the root causes are of gun violence in the first place. We should not ignore socio-economic issues and by the same logic, should incorporate research on social determinants of health in addition.

  4. I agree with the main point here – research is needed.

    I am not sure I agree with the income inequality as the primary driver for mass shootings hypothesis. The Las Vegas shooter was very wealthy and he did not live in Nevada. Other shooters stated political, racial or religious reasons for what they did. If we limit the conversation to schools and young criminals, we still don’t get a clear across the board connection to lack of money. If my memory serves, some of the shooters came from families that were rather well off.
    The problem with analyzing mass shootings is that there aren’t enough of them to draw any conclusions that can be generalized, let alone acted upon.

    The biggest problem I thing are the routine shootings that go on day and night every day. Banning the AR-15 style rifles (which are not “assault rifles” – the A stands for the brand name ArmaLite) will do nothing to curtail those shootings, because those are not perpetrated with rifles, and because we tried banning these rifles before and no effects were observed.

    I am not opposed to banning sales of items that exacerbate crowd casualties. I doubt it’s the rifle though. The drum magazines and all other humongous magazines are probably a better starting place.I am opposed to confiscation because there are millions of weapons out there and there is a constitutional right that has been traditionally understood to let people have guns and it could trigger a reaction that would make current gun violence look like child play. And nothing but hell comes after that.

    I am also opposed to taking the 9/11 approach to this issue. Tracking all children to look for “red flags” is insane. Tracking all people in America all the time, looking at medical records, social media and purchase habits, soliciting calls from anonymous informants, and calculating some violence risk score, is not compatible with either freedom or democracy. And nothing but hell comes from this too.

    There is a dark cloud on America today. There is a lack of hope, lack of opportunity, lack of community and yes lack of family. People don’t belong to anything anymore. Religion is gone. Family is on its way out (how many mass shooters came from a traditional happy family with mom, dad, four kids and a dog?). Sure poverty and inequality in a larger sense has something to do with this, but it’s just a part of it and I don’t think it is the determining part.

    Our old culture is crumbling (much of it by design, but that’s a long story for a different time) and there is nothing in its place. There is no frame of reference, no bumpers, no right and wrong, no duty, no respect, no reverence, no nothing. Many of our children grow up in this moral desert. The weaker ones cannot cope, cannot come up with a personal construct to replace the one that evolved over thousands of years. This by the way could explain political polarization, people sobbing uncontrollably when “their” candidate loses, refusal to accept loss, and Twitter in all its gory glory. Doing research on that is not considered politically correct.

    So what should we do, other than pontificating as I did here? Intervene. Do it now. Doing in the only way that is available to us considering the circumstances and the only way that does not comes with a boatload unintended, but easily predictable, consequences.
    1) Get the huge magazines off the market (the drums)
    2) Protect our schools the way we protect Congress
    3) Yes, close those universal background checks loops (won’t work, but it will make people happy)
    4) Appoint a investigative body to look at the consistent failures of law enforcement to react properly to early warnings received from the community (most shooters fall in that category)
    5) Return to actually teaching stuff in our schools, demanding that students learn stuff, set expectations and help kids live up to those expectations, instead of figuring out how to turn out a bunch of alienated illiterates while looking really good doing it.
    6) Go into the inner cities and do something other than using the people forced to live there as elections props. That’s about the other shootings.

    And yes, let’s do research. Not just on mass shootings. Do research on the pain meds epidemic, the suicide epidemic, the homelessness epidemic, the obesity epidemic… and all other epidemics, including the greed and callousness epidemic at the top, which I would bet all stem from our moral compass getting lost, stolen or willfully destroyed.

    1. Margalit – as always, I agree. Again, I am not opposed to gun control, but don’t think taking all weapons will make America safer. I would like to point out that the post IS talking about economic disparities on both ends. The post is not trying to say that the poor are responsible for mass shootings because it is more commonly the contrary. In particular saying that those who are “well-off,” like Adam Lanza and the Las Vegas shooter do fit the profile as entitled individuals who do not think life has dealt them a good enough hand. Many of the perpetrators are indeed, well off and that is something that has been largely overlooked that we should revisit.
      I agree with your 6 steps and think we need to think outside the box in order to solve this problem of random child murders….
      Schoolchildren are a central focus for me as both a pediatrician and a mother to 4 elementary-aged students in 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. It is hard to walk through their classrooms and make escape plans with them at the beginning of each school year, but I do it. I also teach them to play dead… just in case.
      Like you said, our moral compass is either lost, stolen or has been destroyed. Thanks for your comments.

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