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Real-World Applications

Falk College Public Health Researchers Investigating the Impact of Neighborhood Characteristics on Firearm Violence
Bryce Hruska
Bryce Hruska

In America, it is a sad reality that your ethnic background and zip code can be a contributing factor to the likelihood that you become a victim of both fatal and non-fatal firearm violence. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native individuals experience a higher prevalence of firearm violence nationwide.

A confluence of social, economic and systemic factors—under resourced communities, weak gun laws, inadequate educational and employment opportunities, and systemic racial inequities—all contribute to this disparity. But to what extent do place-based community factors also contribute to, or protect against, this elevated risk? And how do these factors converge to make our communities of color more or less safe?

A team of researchers, including Bryce Hruska, assistant professor of public health in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, David Larsen, chair and professor of public health at Falk, and Margaret Formica, associate professor of public health and preventive medicine at Upstate Medical University, seeks to better understand these questions as they relate to firearm violence risk and potential urban design solutions in Syracuse.

With over $250,000 of funding from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities over a two-year grant, the team hopes their analysis of the firearm violence landscape in Syracuse will have real-world applications as the city considers its future, especially as it relates to the I-81 Viaduct Project, as well as other urban renewal projects across the country.

In this Q&A, Hruska, the study’s principal investigator, shares more about the research and its potential to influence the development of public policies aimed at reducing firearm violence in Black communities in Syracuse and elsewhere.

What are the environmental factors you are analyzing in correlation to firearm violence and why is it important to look at them holistically?

We’re focusing on four different place-based factors: residential segregation, vacant and abandoned properties, green space access, and walkability (how easy it is to get around a neighborhood).

Existing research indicates that when we look at each of these factors independently, they impact rates of firearm violence. Neighborhoods with more segregation tend to have more firearm violence. More vacant, abandoned properties correlate with more firearm violence. If a neighborhood is more walkable, there are more opportunities for crime to occur; we see more violence. Green space access is a protective factor—in places with well-maintained parks, firearm violence tends to be lower.

Our research takes it a step further by examining all these factors at once to see how they relate to one another and how these dimensions might define different types of neighborhoods. For example, a neighborhood might have elevated rates of segregation, more walkability, a lot of green space access, and low vacant housing. So they’ve got two things that are protective—lots of green space, not much vacant housing—but a lot of segregation and walkability.

It could be that we see high firearm violence rates in those neighborhoods, even with the two protective factors. That would tell us there’s something especially notable about the combination of higher levels of segregation and walkability, and we need to target those factors. I think of them as different levers that you can pull to try to address firearm violence. We’re not going to really be able to know which combination of levers is most important unless we look at them all together.

How are you synthesizing multiple data sources to inform this research?

We’ll look at information from the U.S. Census Bureau on segregation here in Syracuse, as well as local data provided by the city. They have an open data portal we can use to gather information on vacant and abandoned housing and walkability. Green space access can be examined by working with local organizations and looking at what parks exist on the map here in Syracuse. We’ll leverage data from the Central New York Crime Analysis Center (firearm fatalities) and the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center (non-fatal firearm injuries).

As we pull information from several different sources, we’ll have one data set that contains all of the factors we’re evaluating. Then, using a statistical technique called latent profile analysis, we can take these four different community level factors and try to tease out whether there are different neighborhoods that tend to have similar values on these different factors. This technique will reveal how these place-based community features interact to create neighborhood profiles that specifically position Black Americans for gun violence exposure.

How do you hope to bring this research and its outcomes into application in the public health space?

We are in a unique position here in Syracuse because we’re on the cusp of trying to redesign the whole city as we start to tear down I-81 and redesign the city’s neighborhoods. The work we’re doing can serve as a baseline. We can say, “Here’s what Syracuse looks like right now before changes occur,” and our results could inform the policies and the actions that we take here in Syracuse.

For example, during a recent open forum on the I-81 project attended by various community representatives and leaders, there was discussion about the need to make neighborhoods really walkable for residents. And that’s great, we want neighborhoods to be walkable—but we know from existing research that there may be some caveats to that. And if we don’t tackle these other environmental dimensions, making a place more walkable could actually be problematic and increase rates of firearm violence if other factors aren’t taken into account.

Our research can help inform these types of decisions. We will be able to see the current state of our neighborhoods in terms of how they vary on these different dimensions, how these variations relate to firearm violence, and how these data might inform how we design these neighborhoods over the next five to 10 years.

We hope these findings can help right here in our backyard while also providing information that can translate across the country. Firearm violence has ticked up in the last several years in many cities across the U.S., and we need to find effective ways to address it. Tackling these environmental features that serve as the backdrop against which this violence occurs has been shown to be an effective way to address it. We’re trying to create a more precise way of identifying which combination of factors might be most impactful to create safer living spaces for all.

An SU News story by Jen Plummer originally published on March 21, 2024.