The Shooting Disease: Who You Know, Where You Live

Authored By 
Michael Sierra-Arevalo
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
June 1, 2015

This op-ed was originally posted in the Hartford Courant on May 31, 2015. 

Though June is yet to start, warm weather gun violence in Hartford appears to have already begun in earnest. As of Wednesday, shootings were reported to be up by 33 percent compared to this time last year, and the 12 homicides, so far, are triple the number of 2014’s year-to-date count..

The tragedy seems random, with no rhyme or reason for lives cut short so soon: Mariano “Papacito” Gonzalez III was only 17 years old when murdered on May 19, while Julius Rivera was shot dead on March 23 at only 20.

“Crazy” is a word used to describe the violence and the death toll, and in more ways than one it is. It’s crazy that our children are dying in the streets. It’s crazy that the ones pulling the trigger are often barely out of adolescence themselves.

But it’s not random.

As any police officer, not to mention residents of the inner city, will tell you, gun violence happens in the same places, year after year. Just as certain neighborhoods have historically been plagued by the specters of crime and drugs, gangs and gun violence are persistent problems that weigh on the residents of poor, minority neighborhoods — often for generations.

Still, despite the stubborn nature of violence born of poverty and other social ills, not every corner is pockmarked with bullet holes, and not every young male is a shooter.

Recent studies in Boston show that between 1980 and 2009, 89 percent of Boston streets never experienced an episode of gun violence. Further, more than half of all the gun violence during the almost 30-year period occurred in only 5 percent of the city’s streets. A similar study in Seattle shows that about 50 percent of all crime occurred on only 4.5 percent of city streets.

The concentration is not just in terms of place, but also people. It’s a tiny handful of the community that’s responsible for the lion’s share of the bloodshed. Turning to Boston again, in the period between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, more than half of all murders, more than three-quarters of youth homicides and 70 percent of all shootings were perpetrated by 1 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24.

One percent.

But what of Mariano Gonzales III and Julius Rivera? What of Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old fatally shot in March of 2013 while her father was changing her diaper in the back of a minivan in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood?

Even these tragedies are not random, and it’s for a deceptively simple reason — who you know has a profound effect on your likelihood of victimization.

As shown by Yale University sociologists in a recent study, 70 percent of all shootings in Chicago can be located in a social network composed of less than 6 percent of the city’s population. Similarly in a high-crime neighborhood in Boston, 41 percent of homicides over a five-year period occurred in a network of less than 4 percent of the neighborhood’s population. Being in that 4 percent of the population increased the probability of being a victim by 900 percent.

In both cases, being socially “close”, that is, knowing a victim, or knowing those who are close to victims, drastically increases the probability of someone being a victim.

As explained in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale and one of the authors of both studies, gun violence can be thought of as a transmittable pathogen. “There are patterns of transmission in the United States that go beyond aggregate factors such as race, age, gender and income. On an individual level, social networks — the people one hangs out with — can predict a given person’s likelihood of being shot and killed.”

This phenomenon is all too clear in the cases of Gonzales III, Rivera, and Watkins. Gonzales III’s father was shot four months earlier. Julius Rivera’s father, Julio, not only lost a son, but also lost two female cousins to gun violence. Jonylah’s father was the target of the shooting that took her life, and her mother was shot in the leg months earlier while waiting to give birth.

It seems clear, then, that though these deaths are tragic, it makes little sense to think of them as random. Randomness, in a statistical sense, suggests that we are all equally likely to become victims of gun violence. This is simply not true. By keeping in mind the way that those around us can affect our lives, police, social services and community members have a better chance of helping not only the direct victims of gun violence, but those near them who might also be at risk.

Michael Sierra-Arevalo is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at Yale University and an Affiliated Fellow at ISPS. His research focuses on policing, gangs, gun violence and criminal justice policy.