Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.
With yet another mass murder, this time in a Tulsa, OK medical facility, the nation reels. The trees are obvious, although identifying the species is complicated.
The easy availability of weapons is accurately cited as a root cause, although 2nd Amendment zealots, the NRA and most Republicans argue that a gun is only as lethal as the triggerman’s intent. Others claim that it is a mental health problem, an assertion that is, perhaps, self-evident. One in robust mental health is unlikely to commit mass murder.
But step back a few paces. A forest may appear.
The title of this post offers a hint. While the age and ethnic or racial identity of those who settle grievances with guns are not readily predictable, excluding luxury car owners is a safe bet.
The roots of gun violence in the United States grow in the toxic soil of inequality and social indifference.
Results of a fascinating study were published in 2019. The study was conducted by two faculty members at the University of La Verne in California. I came upon the little known study while seeking evidence for a comment I made in response to a New York Times column. I sought supportive evidence for this excerpt:
“Furthermore, legislate a healthy society. Conservatives have created an income gap that leaves millions in desperate poverty. Conservatives have starved school systems so kids are alienated and there are few if any mental health supports. Find me a school shooter who comes from a comfortable Darien neighborhood and wears his loafers and chinos with an assault weapon accessory. The GOP has created a monstrous society and it is no surprise that monsters emerge.”
While there is no database of mass murderers’ tax returns, the La Verne researchers looked for significant correlations between mass murder and income inequality in 3,144 US counties. Their conclusion is critically important.
“Counties with growing levels of income inequality are more likely to experience mass shootings. We assert that one possibility for this finding is that income inequality fosters an environment of anger and resentment that ultimately leads to violence.”
They make an additional distinction, also of great import: The key variable is not poverty per se. It is the growth of inequality that predicts mass murder (defined as three or more deaths).
These paragraphs are quite persuasive:
“Numerous sociologists and criminologists over the years explored the correlates of overall homicide rates at the population-level. This research provides a good starting-point for understanding how income inequality may contribute to mass shootings. These researchers largely draw on a relative deprivation perspective to explain the connection between economic disparities and violence. According to Robert Merton, an early forerunner of this perspective, communities with large differences of household income maintain an environment of anger, frustration, resentment, and hostility. Referred to as goal blockage, the effects of relative deprivation are particularly severe when a population finds it difficult to achieve socioeconomic success and status.
To this end, research in public health and epidemiology provides some concrete evidence that income inequality can produce an unstable and hostile social environment. According to Wilkinson and Pickett, inequality is strongly associated with feelings of status insecurity, which is an important predictor of stress and anxiety. Researchers also show that those exposed to environments with a higher probability of being judged negatively by others, which should be more common in unequal environments, tend to possess greater levels of stress and other negative health outcomes.
Furthermore, research from psychology shows that social inequality is not only associated with stress and anxiety, but also aggression. According to this literature, people exposed to unequal environments are more likely to internalize the social norms of power and domination, as opposed to equality and reciprocity. Specifically, those socialized in unequal environments are skeptical of notions of justice and fairness, which promotes hostility and violence. Similarly, others suggest that the salience of competition as typically found in unequal environments may lead to violence and homicide, while related research points to a potential relationship between inequality and the prevalence of youth bullying.”
Their conclusion is necessary for understanding the unique problem the United States has with gun violence in general and mass murder specifically. The correlation between income inequality and gun violence is inarguable. But their conclusion, while necessary, is not sufficient.
Violence, bullying, stress, anxiety, instability and hostility are both the result of and perpetuated by income and opportunity inequality. The communities experiencing growth in economic and social inequality also have the sparsest resources for mitigating these effects.
Schools in such communities have larger, often unmanageable class sizes. Discipline tends to be punitive – exacerbating, not ameliorating, anti-social behavior. These schools are likely to have overwhelmed or non-existent counseling staff. Socially isolated or desperately unhappy children more easily fly beneath the radar and their emotional challenges can become raging pathology.
Families in these communities have more economic stress and higher rates of domestic violence, fueled by frustration and disappointment. They too have fewer resources to access.
The study finally concludes:
“This study provides evidence that counties with growing levels of income inequality experience more mass shootings. In addition, scholars show that today’s more pressing social problems are highly correlated with inequality. Given the evidence, the major policy implication of our study is that part of the solution to solve the growing mass shootings epidemic, and a litany of other social problems, may involve creating policies that can reduce the growing income inequality between Americans.”
To use a trite but apt phrase, income inequality in the United States is a feature, not a bug. Driven by the myth of meritocracy and the mirage of the American Dream, the fabric of the Great Society has been steadily unraveled.
With particular intentionality beginning in the Reagan era, the notion of a compassionate society has been surrendered to a national ethics of “you deserve what you get and get what you deserve.” Escalating gun violence, including increasing outbursts of mass homicidal rage, are what we get.
And from the perspective of debilitating income inequality, it is also what we deserve.