All too often gun violence in America is posed as an urban problem. True, large urban centers have the highest rates of murders by gun. But our suburbs, small towns and rural areas are far from immune to the tragic consequences of guns, as the mass murder of children in Newtown, Connecticut, shows, not to mention the killing spree in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater this past summer, or the gunning down of Gabby Giffords and others during a political event in Tucson, Arizona, or 1999's mass shooting at Columbine High School.
With the help of Atlantic Cities' fellow Sara Johnson, I examined several lists of the locations of recent mass shootings in America. While the data do not cover every mass shooting and have limited geographic information, our accounting clearly shows that the wide majority of mass killings and especially mass school killings have occurred not in the urban centers of large cities, but in the small towns, burgs and villages of our suburban and rural areas.
By our accounting, more than 80 percent of America's 21 worst mass killings identified by the Hartford Courant took place in suburban towns or rural areas, including each and every one of what the paper identifies as the five "worst school massacres in U.S. history." More than two-thirds of the 61 mass shootings that occurred between 1982 and 2012 according to a list and map compiled this year by Mother Jones can also be traced to a suburban or rural location.
Psychologists have found gun violence to be associated with a so called "culture of honor," where young men, especially in the rural South react violently to perceived threats to their economic and social standing. A 2009 study found this culture of honor to be significantly associated with two indicators of high school violence: the percentage of high school students who brought a weapon to school and the prevalence of actual school shootings. The study concludes that "the culture of honor appears to be such a robust predictor of school violence supports the hypothesis that school violence might be partially a product of long-term or recent experiences of social marginalization, humiliation, rejection, or bullying, all of which represent honor threats with special significance to people (particularly males) living in culture-of-honor states." In his detailed comparative historical study American Homicide, Randolph Roth argues increases in the murder rate are less regionally specific and occur when people lose faith in government and elected officials, when social cohesion across racial, ethnic, and religious groups breaks down, and when individuals no longer have faith that the social hierarchy offers avenues for advancement. All of these factors are in play today, and each of them, especially the last, is likely to be heightened among young men in affluent suburbs who feel they are being denied the success of their peers or parents.
Years ago, in the wake of another mass school shooting, a psychology colleague of mine at the time at Carnegie Mellon University offered me a simple theory of why mass school killings might have a more suburban, small-town orientation than gun violence in general. Urban public schools are much more diverse across racial and ethnic lines. Yes, there is fighting and bullying like anywhere, but kids can view them less as personal attacks and more as group behavior. And often times, kids band together along these racial and ethnic lines. Just the opposite is likely in schools in more affluent suburban areas. Not only are these schools more economically advantaged, they tend to be much more homogenous. Since everyone is more or less "the same," kids who are picked on are more likely to feel personally victimized. There is little to help diffuse the resulting anger or anxiety, so it festers and feeds off itself.
While some in the media tend to portray poor urban areas as breeding crime and violence, it's the quiet suburbs and rural areas which appear to be more likely breeding grounds for mass killers and mass killings. It's ironic that the most ardent advocate for gun control is the mayor of America's largest city, Michael Bloomberg, who said: "Calling for ‘meaningful action’ is not enough. We need immediate action."
We can no longer hide behind the convenient fiction that guns are an urban problem. Twenty children are dead in a rural town that witnesses called the "safest place in America." Guns are a threat to our kids and loved ones wherever we live.
Top image: Andrew Jacobs (left) prays as his twin brother Matthew Jacobs (center) looks on outside Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church near Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)