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Contact tracing can curb gun violence epidemic

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Contact tracing — or the identifying of individuals who have a disease and their contacts — can save lives. 

As cities across the country step up their contact tracing efforts to battle COVID-19,  epidemiological research supports the efficacy of this approach.  

The idea is to identify the social network of an infected person and provide treatment as quickly as possible to that person and others in their network. The swift and rapid response to the infected individuals will hopefully stop or slow the spread of the disease. 

The same techniques might be used to combat the public health epidemic of gun violence surging in recent weeks and months in cities across the U.S.  

As a sociologist researching shootings and homicides for over a decade, my research has shown that applying this sort of model of contagion to gun violence, nearly two-thirds of all shootings and homicides unfolded in networks. 

In recent weeks and months, from Chicago to New York to Nashville, the FBI reports increases in homicides and shootings. Over the 4th of July weekend in Chicago, 80 people were shot, 15 of whom died. 

As of the middle of 2020, New York has surpassed 400 shootings, with 205 of them happening in June — the highest number of shootings for that month since 1996. In Nashville. 40 people have been shot so far in 2020, a 43% increase in shootings from the same time last year.   

Such a spike in gun violence is generally accompanied by a scramble for explanations — summer heat, retaliation, interpersonal disputes, or frustration —and an equally frenzied search for ways to stop the loss of life. 

But our research over the last decade reveals that gun violence is much less random than it seems — even when it touches the youngest victims. Gun violence tends to concentrate and spread within social networks in much the same way as the public health epidemic of COVID. 

Similar to the idea of contact tracing, the victims in these chains of shootings can be traced person-by-person, victim-by-victim. This sort of network data can produce information that can help violence prevention workers reach those at risk of exposure to harm. 

Yes, gun violence is tragic in all cases, but in the majority of cases, is decidedly not haphazard.  

For example, over the recent Father’s Day weekend in Chicago, 104 people were shot. Nearly one-third of those victims were in networks connecting them to victims of previous shootings — namely, researchers can literally use methods of contact tracing to capture the spread of gun violence.  

Two Father’s Day victims were part of a network with 20 other people who were victims of gunshot injuries prior to the weekend. In some of these instances, the time between the shootings was a matter of days. Four pairs of shootings in this network took place within four days of each other. Another pair of shootings in this same network occurred only three days apart in May 2019. Two more shootings in this same small network occurred one day apart in 2017.  

Of course, each person affected by gun violence is more than a data point and the complexity of choices, biases, and social contexts of human behavior are never predictable by patterns on a spreadsheet. 

Every assumption and decision when using data to solve problems confront biases (implicit or otherwise). But if tracing the likelihood of connections can save lives and deal directly with such biases, then this application of the tracing of gun violence is a moral responsibility worth pursuing. 

An approach to stemming outbreaks of gun violence needs to heed the lessons learned from COVID-19, including investing in real-time community-based violence prevention that might leverage the power of social networks to get help to those most immediately threatened. 

This means investing and developing data-informed community approaches to gun violence that can reach the most-impacted individuals and their networks. 

Policymakers, administrators, institutions, and researchers need to mobilize and direct funds, personnel, and resources to those most-impacted communities. At the same time, it is urgent to develop plans for dealing with underlying causes of neighborhood inequality including social determinants of health, gaps in economic and educational opportunities, and access to healthcare.

Fortunately, thousands of violence prevention organizations such as Communities Partnering 4 Peace in Chicago,  Advance Peace in California, Save Our Streets in New York, or D.L.I.V.E in Detroit and neighborhood heroes across the country are already doing this work every day — street outreach workers, victim advocates, trauma response teams, educators, and others. 

To contain and proactively thwart the surge in gun violence, leaders need to direct efforts and resources toward pro-active and peacemaking efforts not just to minimize the loss of life and injury, but also to address the collateral trauma and pain of individuals and their communities.

This makes the current search for fair, just, and impactful approaches to gun violence more important than ever. Contact tracing and the power of social networks can indeed save more people from succumbing to this brutal epidemic.  

Andrew Papachristos is a professor of sociology and faculty fellow at The Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. 


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