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Social Networks Can Predict Gun Violence. Ya Think?

Social Networks Can Predict Gun Violence. Ya Think?
Chicago police officers investigate a shooting on Thursday, May 30, 2013. (Photo by Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

I dream of one day getting a government grant to investigate why drivers in black cars are always the last to turn their headlights on. For a couple million of U.S. money, I'd happily sit in a lawn chair with a clipboard and yellow pad beside the Interstate, and tick off the colors of the cars that are still running unlighted well after dusk. Then I'd construct impressive Excel spreadsheets and use those to generate attractive tables and graphs. With proper funding, I could make that project last for years.

I was reminded of my idea by a recent piece in the Washington Post that detailed a study by Andrew V. Papachristos, an associate professor of sociology at Yale University. Papachristos  studied murders in Chicago and discovered if you spend a lot of time around criminals, you're a lot more likely to be shot. Who'da thunk?

As Papachristos reported: "More than 40 percent of all gun homicides in the study occurred within a network of 3,100 people, roughly 4 percent of the community's population. Simply being among the 4 percent increased a person's odds of being killed by a gun by 900 percent."

Now I know you're thinking this just proves hoary old maxims like "lie down with dogs, come up with fleas," and it is true that this is yet another example of university research expending lots of time and money to prove something we all know to be the case.

But it is very useful in the current context. The antis are saying that our division of society into good and bad people is unrealistic and — of course — racist. They argue there is no such thing as a good person, and no one — whether Nobel laureate or gangbanger — is really to be trusted with a gun. Conversely, they argue there are no bad people, just people in bad circumstances.

Well, Prof. Papachristos apparently has demonstrated the opposite. There are those in the world who are bad people. If you are one of their friends or neighbors, you are likely to catch a bullet, whether intentionally or by accident. The obvious answer to the problem? Remove bad people from society. If you can by some alchemy make them into good people, by all means do. If not, sequester them far from the rest of us.

Knowing that requires no affiliation with Yale, but it's always good to see elite academics stumble into the truth.

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