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An ambulance crew moves a victim from the scene of a shooting Stockton, California in 2015. [AP Photo/The Stockton Record, Clifford Oto]

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People Who Commit Gun Crimes are Likely to Have Been Shot Before, New Study Finds

Experts say understanding the connection could help break the cycle of violence.

For decades, researchers have probed the “cycle of abuse” that leads some people subjected to child abuse to later commit the same acts they once suffered. A better understanding of the psychological damage inflicted on children who are abused, and the risks they face as they age, has led to well-established social programs and interventions aimed directly at those most susceptible.

There has been far less study on — and public comprehension of — the relationship between people who have been harmed by guns, and those who use them in crimes.

Into this relative void comes new research from the University of New Haven. Using police incident reports between 2011-2016 from three Connecticut cities that account for roughly 80 percent of that state’s homicides — New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport — professors Richard Spano and David Lambert created a database of individuals who had both been shot and identified by a local police department as involved in a gun-related offense. 

“We were specifically interested in seeing what sequence these incidents occurred: Are they a victim first or are they an offender first?” Lambert says.

Of the 116 people the researchers identified, more than half — 57 percent — had been shooting victims before they had been suspected of a gun crime by police. Ninety nine percent of the subjects were male, 53 percent were younger than 21 years old, and 89 percent were black.

“The best predictor of violent behavior is previous violent behavior, but the next best predictor is violent victimization,” says David Kennedy, the director of the National Network for Safe Communities and a pioneer in the violence prevention field.

“Probably the most important insight in understanding gun violence in the last 25 years is that the violence happens hugely disproportionately among a really small network of folks who are at astronomical risk of victimization and offending,” he says.

That “small network of folks” is the population examined by the New Haven researchers.  While politicians and the media often focus on mass shootings, which account for just two percent of the nation’s gun deaths, roughly half of the 30 people killed by firearms each day in this country are black men — a demographic that makes up only about six percent of the total population.

UNH’s Lambert says that the percentage of individuals who were victimized before committing a gun crime is probably even higher than 57 percent.  The data the researchers used, he says, doesn’t  capture people who were shot at, but not struck, or threatened with a gun, since, in many cases, there wouldn’t be a police report for such an incident.

The data also doesn’t capture the myriad ways at-risk populations are victimized without being shot — from childhood trauma, to constant proximity to violence in their communities, to wounds involving weapons other than a firearm.

“Victimization isn’t exclusive to gun violence,” says Brent Peterkin, the Connecticut coordinator for Project Longevity, a community and law enforcement effort that aims to visit the home of every shooting victim in part to dissuade them from committing retaliatory violence.

Many of the young men committing gun crimes, Peterkin explains, have borne witness to violence their entire lives.

“It’s not exactly like Lord of the Flies, but they have their own little culture where violence is a normal and even positive way to deal with your conflicts,” he says. “That’s the way things should be in their minds.”

Research on the causes and effects of gun violence is drastically underfunded. As The Trace has reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims Congress has restricted its ability to fund gun-related research. As a result, less than $5 million is spent each year on gun studies by public health agencies and research groups.

This lack of federal support has curtailed gun violence research, but not completely stopped it.  Examining the link between getting shot and committing gun crime is a growing interest of the handful of academics who study shootings.

A 2013 study led by a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder found that gang members were more than twice as likely as non-gang members to be both victims of violence and offenders.

In 2015, Yale University’s Andrew Papachristos published a report which suggested that “as an individual’s exposure to gunshot victims increases, so does that individual’s odds of victimization.”

And Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a doctoral student at Yale, recently published a study indicating that 83 percent of surveyed violent offenders in Chicago cited self-protection as their primary motivation for carrying a firearm — implying they either had been, or expected to be, victims of violence.

Acknowledging the link between violent victimization and violent behavior is, experts say, key to violence interruption programs — like Project Longevity — that have been able to make a dent in gun homicides in the neighborhoods where they are implemented. Kennedy, who was instrumental in the creation of the landmark Operation Ceasefire in Boston in the 1990s, says it is critically important to respond to a person who has taken a bullet before they — or someone in their network — decides to retaliate. In other words: before they become an offender, and create yet another victim.

“I think findings like this should make people focus more and more on the fact that, when it comes to this population, we’re very good at paying attention to their offending and not very good at respecting their victimhood,” says Kennedy.

An earlier version of this article stated that researchers looked at individuals who had been arrested for a gun offense. In fact, they looked at individuals identified by a local police department as involved in a gun-related offense, but not necessarily charged.