It turns out that who you know and spend time with may have more of an influence on your risk of becoming a gun homicide victim, than race, age and gang affiliation, according to a new study from a team of sociologists at Yale University.
Andrew Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale, analyzed police and gun homicide records from 2006 to 2011 for people living in a high-crime neighborhood in Chicago. He found that 41 percent of all gun homicides occurred within a network of less than 4 percent of the neighborhood's population, and that the closer one is connected to a homicide victim, the greater that person's chances were for becoming a victim. Each social tie removed from a homicide victim decreased a person's odds of becoming a victim by 57 percent.
"What the findings essentially tell you is that the people who are most at risk of becoming a victim are sort of surrounded by victims within a few handshakes," Papachristos says. "These are young men who are actively engaged in the behaviors that got them in this network."
The network in question consists of more than 3,700 high-risk individuals – young, African-American males from a poor neighborhood – who were clustered into a network by instances of co-offending, meaning each person in the group had been arrested with another person.
Overall, the community's five-year homicide rate was 39.7 per 100,000 people, which was still much higher than the averages of other areas of Chicago (14.7 per 100,000). But being a part of that network of co-offenders, essentially just being arrested, raised the rate to by nearly 50 percent, to 55.2 per 100,000. What's more, being in a network with a homicide victim increased the homicide rate by 900 percent, to 554.1 per 100,000.
"You're at a risk for living in this [certain] community, but if you're in the network, your risk is astronomical," Papachristos says. "That rate is beyond epidemic proportion, that's actually scary."
Typically, Papachristos says, there are traditional factors that put a person at a higher risk of becoming a victim of gun violence homicide - African-Americans are more likely to be killed than whites; men more likely than women; gang members more likely than non-gang members; and those who come from low-income neighborhoods more likely than affluent individuals.
But even more than any of those factors, Papachristos says, a victim's social network was a better indicator.
"What you see, which is what drives the finding, is precisely that the victims cluster in the network. They're not randomly distributed," Papachristos says. "The opposite, however, is also interesting, which is there are lots of parts of the networks where there aren't any victims."
Papachristos says it makes sense to look at the spread of gun violence like the spread of a disease or an epidemic, comparing it to how people contract HIV. Much like the roles needle sharing and unprotected sex play in the spread of HIV, a person's behaviors and personal associations play a role in the spread of gun violence homicides, he says.
"It's the behavior of sharing needles that puts you at risk for contracting HIV, not simply being poor and black and living in a certain neighborhood," Papachristos says. "The same is true with violence. It's who you hang around with that gets you in trouble."