Support for gun safety laws is at an all-time high. Heading into Saturday’s March for Our Lives, more Americans than ever supported new laws to reduce gun violence—including nearly 70 percent of adults and half of all Republicans. But gun safety measures, while critical, are only the tip of the iceberg in addressing gun violence in the country.
In both the United States and globally, gun violence is strongly correlated with both poverty and inequality. A recent World Bank study found that inequality helped predict the difference in murder rates between states in the United States—as well as between countries. Suicides, which make up the majority of gun deaths in the country, skyrocket in times of economic distress. The Great Recession alone was linked to more than 10,000 suicides, according to one study.
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At a time when the Trump administration is undertaking an all-out assault on health care, food assistance, and the broader safety net, I reached out to Mark S. Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, to discuss the link between inequality and gun violence.
Jeremy Slevin: It sounds like from your research, the primary way we can quickly address the gun violence epidemic in this country is through gun policy—reducing the amount of guns that are available in circulation. Is that fair to say?
Mark Kaplan: Limiting access to guns is a form of harm reduction. What guns do to a society that is inherently violent—and we are a violent society—is that it lethalizes the violence. So if we are able to tamp down that violence by reducing people’s access to guns, that might be a first good step in the direction we’re talking about.
JS: Could you talk a little bit about your research on how inequality correlates with levels of gun violence?
MK: For one, we know that the numerous studies that have looked at the intersectionality of race and class and gun violence have clearly shown that there is some relationship between issues of racial segregation and issues of deprivation—social and material deprivation. The reduction of guns is not going to alleviate those problems. But there is a very troubling and very strong association, and gun deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Often we don’t talk about the other 90 percent of that iceberg—people who have to be hospitalized, the financial cost, members of those families, the pain, the post-traumatic stress associated with it. So it’s a much bigger problem than gun death.
JS: Is it fair to say that to address the gun violence issue, you need to tackle both the issue of guns, but also tackle the issues of poverty and inequality?
MK: There isn’t one epidemic of gun violence—there are multiple epidemics of gun violence. Suicide doesn’t come up as often, but that represents two-thirds of gun deaths in this country. And that’s a problem that is different from the interpersonal violence. But both are particularly sensitive to the issue of gun availability.
Let me give you an example. California is rated as an A+ by the Brady scorecard, which rates states by the number of gun laws they have on the books. Nationally, 51 percent of all suicides are gun-related. In some states, it runs even higher, all the way to 80, 90 percent. In California, it’s 30 percent, on average. So it means that with fewer guns, there’s a window of opportunity to intervene and possibly rescue people who are suicidal. But with the presence of a gun, the opportunities to intervene diminish dramatically.
JS: Has there been any research, either by you or other scholars, on how suicides are linked to economic factors?
MK: I did recently complete a project, funded by the NIH, looking at the impact of the Great Recession on suicides. And indeed, there is a relationship! There’s some evidence that with the Great Recession we saw a rise in unemployment, we saw a rise in foreclosure rates, we also saw a rise in the rate of poverty—which may have contributed even more than the other two measures in economic distress. That rise in poverty contributed to an uptick in the suicide rate.
There are data that seem to suggest, both coming from the United States and more so from Europe, that many European countries such as Greece went through a very hard time. The EU imposed very restrictive, draconian measures that were attached to the loans they got, and that caused a cutback in welfare and health care and all sorts of other things. And in countries that traditionally had lower suicide rates such as Greece and Italy during the Great Recession, rates of suicide went up. But we know in this country too that the long-term research looking at periods of unemployment and following up five years or more show that for each percentage-point rise in unemployment, there’s also a rise in the suicide rate.
JS: And of course, in the United States, it’s very easy to get a gun, which seems to be the most fatal form of suicide. Of all suicide attempts, those attempted with a firearm are unfortunately more likely to be fatal.
MK: Yes, that’s referred to as the “case fatality rate.” With the use of guns, it’s nearly 95 percent.
JS: What would you recommend as policy solutions that get at both the firearm access and the social justice issues of gun violence?
MK: I think that we need to approach this in a more holistic way, a more comprehensive way. The gun issue is perhaps the first step. It’s how we tamp down the lethalization, which I brought up at the beginning. That’s something that researchers have looked at globally—the presence of guns. The first thing we need to do is lower the rate, the prevalence of gun availability, access to guns. California is a great example. Some of the most restrictive gun laws have produced very positive results, fewer gun deaths in the state. They say the winds blow from the west to the east, so hopefully that will happen.
And then we can begin to tackle some of these social inequities and inequalities, and some of the structures that promote inequality. Violence is a more difficult social problem to tackle. It represents more than just the loss of lives: The economic toll on society is huge. How do we redress the various measures of inequality? The distribution of wealth and income, the issue of racially segregated communities, the under-resourced and underfunded social welfare infrastructure that seems to be taking a hit in the current administration—those are issues that also need to be addressed. We are lowering the safety net right now. In other words, under the current government … we’re requiring work for health care, so we’re dropping the safety net, meaning that people are going to get hurt.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.