Economist Works to Reduce Surging Rates of Gun Violence

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Professor Max Kapustin studies ways to prevent shootings, whose ill effects reverberate throughout society

By Beth Saulnier

In early November, Governor J.B. Pritzker declared gun violence a public health crisis in Illinois—a state whose largest city, Chicago, has already tallied more than 3,000 shootings (and upwards of 700 homicides) in 2021. “We will do what it takes, individually and collectively, to address the immediate violence on our streets,” he said at the time, “and invest in fighting the underlying causes that cause too much despair, too much addiction, too little mental health treatment, and too few opportunities.”

Among those devoting their expertise to this often-intractable issue is Cornell’s Max Kapustin. An assistant professor of economics in the Brooks School of Public Policy, Kapustin concentrates his research on ways to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth and adults, with a focus on violence prevention. He came to Cornell from the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and Education Lab, with which he’s still affiliated.

“Even within the city of Chicago, if you live a few miles in one direction versus another, you could be exposed to unimaginably different levels of gun violence, which shapes everything about your existence—the kind of trauma you’re exposed to growing up; your ability to concentrate in school; your odds of getting a job and building a future,” he observes. “It goes well beyond the incidents themselves. It shapes the entire character of a neighborhood.”

Kapustin’s contributions include helping to evaluate READI Chicago, a program that uses a data-driven approach to identifying residents likely to become involved in gun violence—both as perpetrators and as victims—and works to prevent it by offering them short-term employment and a variety of support services.

How widespread is the current spike in gun violence?

This is a coast-to-coast phenomenon. It’s not happening in a handful of cities, or in some states and not others. In 2020, most major cities saw year-over-year increases of 20, 30, 40 percent in homicides, most committed with a gun. And it doesn’t seem to be slowing down much in 2021.

Is there a national database that tracks gun violence?

Many people might be surprised to learn that there isn’t. There are independent, privately run efforts that comb news stories about shootings and so forth. But we’re a long way from having a reliable data source that every researcher, journalist, or citizen who wants to know about gun violence in their area can look to.

How might the pandemic be contributing to the increase?

Many of the systems that operate in the background on any normal day to improve public safety—social services, after-school programs, community organizations doing anti-violence work—ground to a halt at the start of the pandemic. In addition, police departments had officers out sick with COVID. Starting in mid-March 2020, a lot of the machinery keeping the public safe became less effective overnight, while the economic and psychological strain on communities increased.

We’re a long way from having a reliable data source that every researcher, journalist, or citizen who wants to know about gun violence in their area can look to.

Have the protests following the murder of George Floyd, and demands to defund police agencies, played a role?

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the protests and gun violence. But a widely shared view is that policing is most effective at improving public safety when carried out in cooperation with the community. If that cooperation breaks down—say, following an incident like George Floyd’s murder, or countless others where police are thought to have acted inappropriately or even criminally—then we would expect policing to be less effective until trust is restored.

A graph showing homicides in the U.S. from 1960 to 2020
The U.S. homicide rate—while far below the highs of the 1980s and '90s—rose 29% in 2020, its largest single year increase on record. In several cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Memphis) rates have reached or surpassed their previous records. According to Kapustin, 77% of homicides in the U.S. in 2020 involved firearms. (Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program)

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Do you see any common denominators in these shootings?

People often assume shootings are due to the kinds of things they see in movies and on TV, like gang warfare. And there’s certainly some of that. But many incidents start as altercations over relatively minor issues that spiral out of control—an argument over a bicycle, or whether somebody looked at someone else the wrong way. These are often not deliberate, planful acts, but mistakes. In high-stakes, stressful situations, people may not consider all of their options for how to respond. If they think their only option is, “Pull out a gun or be shot,” things can quickly escalate.

Many incidents start as altercations over relatively minor issues that spiral out of control. These are often not deliberate, planful acts, but mistakes.

What does that mean for deterrence?

The approach to reducing gun violence we’ve used for decades as a society relies heavily on policing and imprisonment. But if many shootings stem from impulse decisions made in the heat of the moment, it’s not clear that’s the most effective approach. Is someone who’d pull a gun from their waistband and shoot going to be thinking about a prison sentence they may or may not get? Our deterrence policy should reflect the problem we actually have, rather than the one we think we have.

So what can be done?

One approach, taken by programs like READI Chicago, is to use ideas from behavioral science to prevent shootings. An example of this is cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT], which trains people to recognize when their automatic read of a situation may be wrong—to slow down and ask, “What’s the consequence of what I’m about to do, and is there an alternative?” Randomized trials of other programs incorporating CBT have found them to be remarkably effective at reducing violence.

What’s the population you’re trying to reach? Why are they especially in need of these interventions?

Those at the center of gun violence in the U.S. are overwhelmingly young adult men of color—yet most social service programming focuses on young children, teenagers, mothers, pregnant women, and the elderly. The safety net misses those most at risk, many of whom are not formally employed and whose primary contact with social institutions is often the criminal justice system. Researchers know relatively little about the needs of these men and how to keep them safe.

Does the low clearance rate for gun crimes also make this topic harder to study?

It does. In Chicago, for example, the likelihood of an arrest being made in any given homicide is roughly 30%; for non-fatal shootings, it plummets to about 5%. In the majority of cases, we don’t know who’s actually pulling the trigger. We have some guesses—a lot of these incidents happen within communities, between people who know each other—but we don’t have a definitive sense of who is picking up a gun and shooting somebody else.

You’re an economist. In addition to the human suffering, is there a financial imperative at play here?

Our best estimates put the total social cost from a single gun injury at almost $2 million. This includes not just job loss and medical bills, but also the trauma and fear that shootings inflict on communities. Reducing gun violence has a very high payoff.

Top image: Photo by Ryan Young / Cornell University

Published December 3, 2021

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