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Shootings, murder-suicide raise broader question: Is violence linked to recession?

The deaths in North Carolina and California follow other high-profile shootings in recent weeks.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2009

Investigators worked at Pinelake Health and Rehab Center, where a gunman opened fire on Sunday, killing eight people and wounding several others in Carthage, N.C.

Jim R. Bounds/AP

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Atlanta

Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif.

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The details in all these cases are still emerging. In most, the exact motive has yet to be determined – or may never be fully understood.

On a broader level, however, such incidents may be happening more often because an increasing number of Americans feel desperate pressure from job losses and other economic hardship, criminologists say.

"Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses," says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Direct correlation between economic cycles and homicides is difficult to prove, cautions Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. But an economic downturn of this breadth and depth hasn't been seen since data began to be collected after World War II, he also points out. "This is not the average situation," Mr. Bushway says.

Still, criminologists do say that certain kinds of violent crimes have risen during specific economic downturns. The recession in the early 1990s "saw a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47," Mr. Levin says.

And in the midst of this downturn, one study released Monday in Florida finds a link between domestic violence and economic tragedies like job loss and foreclosures. The Sunshine State saw an almost 40 percent jump in demand for domestic-violence centers, an increase related to the state of the economy, the study says. George Sheldon, secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families, calls the situation "the worst I've seen in years," according to the Associated Press.

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