Believe it: Common-sense laws that regulate gun ownership and usage make Americans safer. A study from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that states with strong gun laws typically have fewer firearm deaths. But legislation is not the only variable—and perhaps not even the most effective—that influences gun violence in the United States.
It’s been more than six months since the Newtown massacre that left 28 dead, including 20 children. It’s an important reminder to consider the root causes of gun violence, and data suggests that economics matter just as much as politics.
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed reported that both poverty and college education correlate even more strongly with gun violence levels than do several major laws designed to prevent it. Poverty is correlated with more gun deaths, and greater numbers of college graduates with fewer.
Even in cities with strong gun laws, the correlation holds. Buzzfeed notes that “the average rate of gun deaths in Chicago’s five poorest neighborhoods was over 12 times the rate in its least poverty-stricken.” A map of murders in Washington, D.C. shows that killings hardly ever occur in the city’s wealthy western swath of neighborhoods.
Mind you, this is correlation and not causation. But there’s plenty of reason to believe that poverty leads to gun violence and greater economic security decreases it.
In his classic study of inner city Philadelphia, sociologist Elijah Anderson demonstrates how racism, social alienation, and the absence of economic opportunity combine to create a “code of the street” in which wielding the “credible threat of violence” is the only way to ensure one’s safety. Needless to say, the code leads to a pattern of confrontation and killing.
“Only by reestablishing a viable mainstream economy in the inner city, particularly one that provides access to jobs for young inner-city men and women, can we encourage a positive sense of the future,” Anderson wrote.
Unfortunately, for many in the United States college education is a privilege and not a right. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of attending a public university has more than doubled since 1988, with no comparable increase in Americans’ incomes. No surprise, then, that only 44 percent of low-income high schoolers with high test scores go on to graduate from college.
As legislators renew their efforts to regulate guns, they should remember that economic opportunity is a key complement to any gun law.