Why Root Causes Matter

Root Cause: The fundamental reason for the occurrence of a problem

As we’ve noted in multiple blogs over the years, as well as embedded into our Stances On Regulations page, a frequent theme you’ll see is that we as a club support solutions based on what we call “root cause mitigation.” This term means that we believe solutions should be based on addressing the root causes of violence rather than looking at the symptoms of violence, which are targeted for treatment by some through blanket bans or other window dressings. It’s the difference between popping painkillers like candy to treat your chronic knee pain, while you actually need to see a doctor to get the surgery done to fix it.

One of our articles from a few years ago here hits on many of the points, and some of the information here is based on that earlier work.

As it is a core part of our message and our mission, we felt it was time to do a more complete breakdown and create a more easily findable resource for our members and the public about the causes of violence in order to broaden public discussion on this topic. We will start with the two broad categories of violence involving firearms, and then we’ll break them down further. To start, we’ll need to establish some facts around the numbers.


This may or may not come as a surprise to you as a reader, but out of the over 45,000 deaths involving firearms in the United States each year, 53% (24,200) of them are suicides. That’s why, if you just look at the overall number which is used by many, you’ll see states like Alaska and Arizona right up there with Alabama, despite them being on the lower end of the spectrum for homicides. (CDC, Deathpenalty.org) Although these numbers are certainly not a secret, lumping them all into the same bucket misses the mark from a solutions perspective, and belies the trope that “gun violence” is rooted solely in anger rather than significantly in health and other issues.


Despite hearing about homicide in the news on an almost daily basis, crime and homicide rates are still near their lowest point since the 1960’s.

In the other 47% of deaths involving a firearm, there are a few overarching categories to discuss, by order of the most deaths first. Street violence, Domestic Violence, Murder/Suicide (often involving Domestic Violence), Domestic Terrorism, Spree/Mass Killings. What we see on the news is the most sensational of these events, while the overwhelming number of people who die from homicide are from the first two categories. Even using the most generous numbers from a source that has re-defined “mass shooting” from the standard the FBI has used for decades, which is 4 or more people dying in an single incident to 4 or more people shot in an incident, out of the roughly 15,000 homicides in a year, about 350 of those are counted as a public mass shooting. The rest fall into the other categories.

So now that we’ve identified the categories, let’s discuss root causes. As you might imagine from the two paragraphs above, these 45,000+ deaths, although they share a common instrument, have wildly different root causes, and legislation to address one of them may have no impact on the others.

First, we will be looking at the root causes of suicide

Who dies by suicide?

Women are more likely to attempt suicide, but men are more likely to die from their attempts (compromising 80% of all suicides) .  People of color, particularly Native Americans, are particularly at risk. Men over age 50 are also at increased risk. Sadly, preteens, teenagers, and people in their early 20s are also at increased risk. Other at risk populations include LGBT individuals, especially younger and trans individuals. A full 40% of living trans individuals surveyed are survivors of attempted suicide. That doesn’t even count the individuals who died by suicide or the suicides of trans individuals who never came out and nobody knows that was the driver of the suicide. (Source)

Suicide rates also show up at almost a perfect inverse to murder rates based on population density. If you look at the CDC report here (note: data is from 2012; a similar page for 2018 was located, but it does not show the data in as much detail. You can use their tool from the page to drill down however), you’ll see that the highest number of suicides comes from the most rural states. If the numbers are further broken down into the metro/rural areas within a given state, the numbers also hold true.

Why do people attempt suicide?

A host of reasons. Depression. Spite. Fear. Defiance. Hatred. Confusion. Depression. Loneliness. Disgust with oneself. Chagrin. Loneliness. Loss of self. Religious martyrdom. Attention. An attempt to “get out of the way.” You’ll notice depression and loneliness is listed twice. In the more rural areas where population density is low, the lack of support networks of professionals and family can amplify those feelings and the person may not interact with or know how to get help. Or those resources may simply not be anywhere nearby. Finally, sometimes, a decision to end one’s life before a disease degrades one’s quality of life in one’s last weeks, months, or possibly years.

What can we do about it?

While there can be many indicators that one is suicidal, it cannot always be anticipated. However, organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Question, Persuade, Refer can help one learn what these indicators are, and steps one can take when they occur. Universal Health Care and increasing resources to help those most in need would go a long way but in the meantime here are a few things you can do today: Reach out to your friends and family just to check in. Be there for them. Call professionals if you’re concerned, and get help for you or any family members who need it.  Walk the Talk America is doing some fantastic work. Pass along information or put them in touch with The Trevor Project, or give them the phone number to the Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860). Such a gesture can literally save a life, despite how little it may seem to be.

What isn’t a root cause?

Firearms bans and restrictions. One easy comparison is using the suicide statistics within California. With the same gun laws statewide (specifically including waiting periods to purchase any firearm, even when one is already owned, as they were ostensibly put in place to address suicide and crimes of passion), California has wildly different suicide rates based on that urban vs rural divide. Suicide is a largely white, largely rural issue. As the Sacbee notes “The suicide rate in rural California counties was more than 80 percent higher than the rate in urban counties during 2013, state figures show.” 1  (Note: This article is from 2015, but the current data can be pulled from the CDC database here, and it shows the same outcomes)

An Assault Weapons ban won’t (and didn’t, as California has had it in place since the 1990’s) address this issue. Limiting the number of firearms, magazine capacity restrictions, or even a complete semi-automatic firearm ban wouldn’t make a difference. One bullet is all it takes. And if you take that to mean we should just get rid off all firearms, look at France. Their suicide rate historically has been roughly equal to that in the United States.  The same rural/urban divide exists. The same root causes exist. Instead of firearms as the method of choice, hanging/asphyxiation is and the rate of those that complete it slightly higher than in the U.S. (One out of approximately 24 in France versus 1 in approximately 26 in the U.S. are complete attempts.)

With homicide, some of the root causes are very different, depending on which of the 4 major categories we are talking about. Some of the root causes are almost exactly the same. It’s also incredibly important to note that homicide and violence overall has been on a long decline since the early 1990’s, despite the portrayal in the media that it’s happening more and more frequently. We peaked at 10.8/100k in 1980, then saw another uptick to 9.8/100k in the early 1990’s, and have been on a steady decline since- about half of our peak down to 5/100k in 2019.


Homicides: We’ll start with street violence.

The drug deal gone bad, the liquor store robbery, the bar fight, the insurance scam, the lovers’ quarrel, the abusive spouse. The stuff of TV crime drama and daily life in America, the stuff that sometimes goes very badly.  In 2018, there were 24,576 homicides in the United States; a gun was used in 19,384 of those.

Who are the aggressors and the victims of Street Violence?
  • African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the numbers of both the killer and the killed.  From 1980 to 2008, the victimization rate for blacks (27.8 per 100,000) was 6 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000). The offending rate for blacks (34.4 per 100,000) was almost 8 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000).
  • Men and boys. Males represented 77% of homicide victims and nearly 90% of offenders. The victimization rate for males (11.6 per 100,000) was 3 times higher than the rate for females (3.4 per 100,000). The offending rate for males (15.1 per 100,000) was almost 9 times higher than the rate for females (1.7 per 100,000).
  • Age: Approximately a third (34%) of murder victims and almost half (49%) of the offenders were under age 25. For both victims and offenders, the rate per 100,000 peaked in the 18 to 24 year-old age group at 17.1 victims per 100,000 and 29.3 offenders per 100,000.


What are the root causes of street violence?

There have been a number of studies and articles over the years, largely brushed off by both sides as it doesn’t fit the neat narrative of “Guns are bad” or “Violent Thugs in America” from the anti gun lobby and the NRA respectively. Both completely ignore the why behind the what of street violence- income inequality and poverty in our nation’s cities drive desperation and our teenagers turning to gangs as their way to stay safe. And instead of doing something to lift them out of poverty and desperation, we instead dismiss those deaths as kids who deserved it because of their “life choices”. (And, unsurprisingly, they also happen to overwhelmingly be black or brown.)  How large is the problem? According to the National Gang Center, about 2300 murders per year can directly be attributed to gang related activity, but if we look at numbers from the CDC, precipitating circumstances of another crime are 35% of the overall homicide totals.

What can be done to address the issue? We spend billions every year to ramp up enforcement, crack down on poor neighborhoods (largely comprised of people of color), and yet this issue persists. We have strong gun laws in LA, Chicago, New York, and other major cities, yet this issue persists. What haven’t we done? Invested in these areas and given them a hand up. Policies like redlining, restrictive covenants/HOA’s dating back to the 50’s and 60’s, and decades of lopsided drug enforcement have kept these areas from prospering like some other parts of the country. Invest in our schools, invest in the neighborhoods, invest in our kids- the future is worth it. Look at ideas like community based policing, fair housing policies on the local level and ending the school to prison pipeline and the overly punitive war on drugs. Will it solve problems overnight? Nope. But it’s worth it in the long term.

What can we do about it?

The causes may seem too multifarious – and too entrenched – to deal with. But violence interrupters such as Project Ceasefire and the Capital Region Violence Intervention Program have shown promise. There needs to be widespread societal will to change the underlying causes. Reducing income inequality in our cities should be a top priority for every politician, and as we’ve seen over the last 40 years, things are getting worse, not better in that regard.

The next issue we’ll address is “Personal Conflicts”

This is something that appears to require more study.  One study, released in 2010, posits that most homicides stem from “personal conflicts.”  Domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse stand out, according to one of the authors of that study.  Drilling down, we can find a number of factors. The New York Times recently looked at homicide in Chicago in an effort to ask why homicide rates in Chicago are worse than in New York City.  Predictably, the NYT blames guns as part of the problem – access to guns in neighboring states, relatively lenient gun possession laws in Illinois, McDonald v. Chicago – but it notes societal factors as well: less strict policing in Chicago than in NYC, gang wars, poverty, racial segregation.  Quoting a Harvard professor who has studied crime in Chicago, the NYT writes:

Racially segregated minority neighborhoods have a long history of multiple adversities, such as poverty, joblessness, environmental toxins and inadequate housing, Professor Sampson said. In these places, people tend to be more cynical about the law and distrust police, “heightening the risk that conflictual encounters will erupt in violence.”

“The major underlying causes of crime are similar across cities, but the intensity of the connection between social ills and violence seems to be more persistent in Chicago,” Professor Sampson said. “You don’t get that kind of extensive social and economic segregation in many other cities.”

Domestic Violence

From here, moving on to the next 10% of homicides, roughly 1500 people per year, largely women, are killed by their intimate partners.

After all, as we noted in a blog post in October 2014, awareness of, and a concentrated societal attack on, domestic violence has drastically reduced domestic violence homicides.

Who are the aggressors and the victims of Domestic Violence?

It may seem repetitive to say this, but the identification of the who here is pretty simple. 72% of murder-suicides involve a domestic partner, and of those, 94% of the victims are female. This is an overwhelmingly male issue, and with 200,000 calls into hotlines a day about domestic violence, it’s an escalating pattern that sometimes ends in tragedy.

What are the root causes of Domestic Violence?

As we’ll note below regarding spree killings and mass shootings, there is a common thread between them- a sense of entitlement and that women “owe” the perpetrator something. It also ties back to men wanting to control the actions of their partners, a throwback to times when women were kept in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, obeying the man in all things. Fortunately we as a society have come out of the stone age with regards to women’s rights, while unfortunately some refuse to admit it.

We also fail to teach our young men to respect a woman’s bodily autonomy and don’t teach them how to deal with rejection or conflict- this results in 15% of all homicides coming from domestic violence. There’s also a link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, as these controlling abusers often start with abusing animals, and escalate to abusing or killing their partner.

What can we do about it?

Domestic abusers who have a restraining order against them, have a conviction for Domestic Violence, or have a conviction of animal cruelty should not have access to guns. We also need to start at a very early age to teach our kids to respect each other, specifically that violence is not the answer for a dispute or that women should just do what they are told to do by their partners. Equality and respect are core principles that need to be taught from the get go.

And finally, spree killings/mass shootings.

Our readers might wonder, why did you wait until the end to talk about this? Isn’t this the most pressing issue we have in front of us right now?

It is the most sensational. Plastered across every news site on the left and the right, you’ll find things that go as far as saying the 2nd amendment is a relic and should be done away with, we should take away everyone’s guns, to the equally absurd “Crisis Actor” memes (no, we’re not linking to those) or arm all teachers on the right.

If we’re to be honest about these horrific events however, we need to, as rational individuals, realize that of all the subsets we’ve listed, the number of deaths every year from them range from 220 in 2016 on the low end, using the FBI’s definition, to the highest end estimates from the Gun Violence Archives (They use wildly different definitions, and the latter has only been tracked for the last several years) at 344 in 2017. These incidents account for 2% of overall homicides and under 1% of overall firearm deaths. It’s important to keep things in perspective.

What are the root causes of mass shooters?

This has been a subject of quite a bit of research over the last few decades. Largely, this is where there is some overlap with suicides. Loneliness, social isolation, anger, and intimate partner related emotional issues play one large part, much like suicides. Also like suicides, there is the effect of clustering- when one happens and it makes the news, copycats will follow. Fame and publicity are additional factors.

How can we address it?

Adding fuel to the fire is contagion.  It has been said that suicides are often “contagious,” which is why the media voluntarily refrain from publicizing the details of a suicide.  (Usually they do, that is.  I still don’t think we needed the details of Robin Williams’ death.)  Well, a study released in 2015 indicates that mass killings and school shootings are also contagious.

Every time a publicity murder occurs, what do we see?  Pictures of the shooter.  Pictures from high school yearbooks and Facebook pages.  Booking photos if the shooter doesn’t kill himself before getting arrested.  If the shooter left a manifesto, whether by faxing to a TV station, posting on YouTube, or tweeting, we get pictures of the fax, screenshots of tweets, links to YouTube.  Lots of navel-gazing “why did he do it?” articles.  The shooter’s name repeated over and over and over.

Stop giving them what they want, which is fame. Help to stop the contagion from spreading.

Additionally, there’s some really promising work being done on the engaging kids to help them front. In Los Angeles, an extremely proactive engagement with kids is being done, as outlined here. As noted in the research, teaching our children how to handle conflict through social and emotional development makes an enormous difference when it comes to long term outcomes.

Largely the individuals who make up the mass shooter profile tend to be unable to relate to their peers emotionally or socially, and feel that they have been wronged in some fashion or another, many times by feeling they are “owed” something. All too often what they think they are “owed” is attention/sex/dates from the girls in their school. This ties directly back to social and emotional development, teaching our young men from an early age how to handle conflict and rejection, as entitlement to another person’s bodily autonomy is simply unacceptable. Reacting to that rejection through violence can be headed off with early intervention.

The above is a good baseline to begin the process, and over time will make a positive impact on these events. At the same time we have to look at solutions that will make a more immediate difference with our kids, and there is some promising work on that front as well. We may not agree with many things that the Sandy Hook Promise proposes, but there is one thing in particular that we have discussed regularly in our blog that they agree with us on- knowing the signs and the FBI’s handbook here can help in engaging with those who are at risk for violent behavior.

These are things that schools, children, and parents can do today, without any additional legislation or funding to make a positive impact on someone else’s life and possibly stop them from becoming the next school shooter. While talks of various gun bans and background checks go round and round, addressing the root causes of these events; the people that perpetrate them, we can make an actual difference with these youth. It also is the right thing to do, helping awkward and socially challenged kids to engage and develop friendships with their peers will help them to become better members of society. It’s our moral obligation to help those who need it, why would we look at emotional and social development any differently? The additional benefits of these solutions is that they will also make an impact on the other two homicide categories outlined above. The inability of young men to handle social or emotional issues without resorting to violence is a key factor for them and helping to get these kids more well adjusted will help to bend the long term curve in the right direction.

Looking to an increasingly authoritarian response to these issues rather than tackling the root causes guarantees only one thing. More and more of your rights going by the wayside. We’ve seen both major parties enthusiastically support warrantless wiretaps, putting people on a secret list that restricts their travel (and until it was going to be applied to guns, the Dems were against it), and our politicians going after the press as fake news. We must stand firm against these encroachments as Americans, and demand instead that we actually do something that works instead of playing the game of security theatre.

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