Friday, December 8, 2023

Gentrified neighborhoods have significantly higher firearm injury rates

City dwellers have long noticed that gentrifying neighborhoods report more gun violence, reported The Guardian. Now, a study, published in Jama Surgery earlier this year and conducted by a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School with Brigham and Women’s hospital, shows just how much – and could suggest new ways to combat gun violence.

The report found that the firearm injury incidence rate was 62% higher in neighborhoods that had gentrified between 2014 and 2019 than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods with similar sociodemographic characteristics. On top of that, it found that the gunshot injury rate was an additional 26% higher in neighborhoods that were actively gentrifying. (The study didn’t specify who was committing the violence.)

Molly Jarman, a researcher and professor at Brigham and Women’s hospital and one of the co-authors on the study, says that the social disruption and residential displacement associated with gentrification might explain the findings.

“There’s evidence that communities with good social cohesion have less violence,” she said, such as when people who live near each other go to the same schools, offices or churches. But rising home prices that force longtime residents to relocate can disrupt that cohesion. “It means people who have known each other for a very long time and seen each other and understand and respect and get along are no longer seeing each other every day.”

Gentrification – the process where wealthier people move into poor urban areas, raising housing prices, bringing new businesses and often displacing previous residents – is rampant in California. According to a 2020 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, five of the country’s 20 most intensely gentrified cities are located in the state: San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Reading the study felt like “a validation of what we’ve been saying for decades”, said Jose Bernal, the organizing director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based advocacy organization focused on prisons, policing and community development.

In his work, Bernal regularly speaks with residents who are contending with rising housing prices in neighborhoods they’ve long called home – and ensuing cultural changes, like grocery stores that stop carrying certain hair care products or restaurants that no longer serve longtime favorites.

“It creates a lot of anxiety, uncertainty, and it creates a lot of stress for the community who is trying to hold on and try to stay there,” said Bernal.

The study’s researchers used US census data to identify gentrifying neighborhoods, then cross-referenced that data with statistics from the Gun Violence Archive – a non-profit that collects and verifies firearm incidents from law enforcement, government and media resources.

Jarman says the study adds an important element of “when” to a conversation that’s long been about “where”.

“We understand that there are some neighborhoods that have more firearm injuries than other neighborhoods,” she said. “But even within the neighborhoods that have a lot of injuries, it changes over time. And so there may be weeks or months where there are no firearm injuries and then suddenly there is an outbreak.”

George Tita, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, says that “there’s an enormous body of literature on how gentrification impacts crime”, going back more than a hundred years to 19th-century Paris. Theories from that literature include the concept of social disruption, as well as the idea that policing – and therefore arrests – increase in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Studies looking at gentrification in ChicagoSan FranciscoNew Orleans and Washington DC all noted that police stops and arrests – especially for unhoused people and sex workers – increase during gentrification. One 2020 study from researchers at Rutgers University found that misdemeanor policing increased in neighborhoods experiencing the real estate reinvestment typical of gentrification: as property values increased, new residents were more likely to call police to report loitering or disorderly conduct. The Gun Violence Archive data that researchers used for this study includes information on officer-involved incidents.

Tita believes it is key that researchers “look at specific kinds of violence so that we can formulate interventions”. Much of his own research, for example, has looked at the relationship between gentrification, gang violence and homicide.

“There is no such thing as a gun violence problem. There is domestic violence that involves guns. There’s gang violence that involves guns. There’s interpersonal, friends getting into an argument that involves guns. There is the accidental discharge of firearms. There is suicide,” he said. “Without knowing the categorization of that violence, it’s really hard to come up with policies to combat and address and try to reduce gun violence.”

Although California has the strongest gun safety laws in the nation, according to the Giffords Law Center and Everytown for Gun Safety, the total number of gun homicides remains high in regions like Los Angeles and the East Bay (although the per capita rate is higher in some non-urban counties).

Jarman and her co-authors say that strategies to curb gun violence in the US must address both the availability of guns and the social dynamics of poverty. They hope their research might support policies to reduce the displacement of longtime residents when neighborhoods gentrify or the introduction of violence intervention programs in areas expected to gentrify or ones that are currently gentrifying.

Bernal and his colleagues at the Ella Baker Center say that investing in prevention is key, pointing to Oakland’s department of violence prevention, which was founded in 2017 as an alternative to the police department, as an example.

“To me, the solution is not complicated,” said Bernal. “It’s invest in people, invest in futures, invest in the youth, invest in resources that are going to keep people safe. And that’s it.”

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