By Dr. Natasha C. Pratt-Harris and Dr. Johnny Rice II
Here we are.
It’s the height of Summer 2023 and for some there’s this prevailing notion that with the heat comes the increased potential for crime, and for devastating violence. “The warm temperatures are the explanation for increased violence,” some say, and historic data trends support an uptick in crime during the hotter summer months period. Yet, is it accurate to assume weather is the driver of recent mass shootings that have occurred?
Last week, in urban Baltimore City, rural Salisbury Maryland, and neighboring Washington DC, communities were directly and indirectly impacted by devastating mass shootings. As a people we often rush to explain what feels unexplainable. No matter the explanations, the loss of human life and harm inflicted due to gun violence is painful, it’s debilitating, it’s not normal. It is traumatizing. Unfortunately, the Baltimore area was not alone in experiencing such violence. There were also mass shootings in Fort Worth, TX, Philadelphia, PA, Shreveport, LA, and several other cities. Which begs the question, “Are we in for a long hot summer that will be filled with crime and violence?”
The debate about warm weather and its relationship to crime’s uptick is long standing. On one hand there’s this idea that warm temperatures increase the potential for violence and rage. On the other hand, there’s the debate that when schools are closed there’s more opportunity for youth to engage violently. Also, with the dissipation of restrictive COVID protocols there is a resurgence of public events that can lead to large clusters of people being together and overcrowding.
Warm Temperatures and Violence
We want to be clear here – biological determinism has been laced with racist epithets. This lends itself to an assumption that humans in warmer climates act out like animals and when it’s hot there’s an increased potential to engage violently. The school closure argument about an increase in violence is debated, where it discounts the fact that youth are more likely to engage when school is in session (when the temperatures across the continental United States are cooler). Spikes in violence are actually related to access to weapons and opportunities to engage violently.
In Chapter 16 of the book authored and edited by the two of us (Why the Police Should be Trained by Black People) Pratt-Harris examined states like Alaska (generally colder) who is #2 nationally when it comes to gun violence. Warmer climates can’t explain the rates of violence there. Pratt-Harris describes guns as hazards to Black life specifically but acknowledges guns as hazards to all life and it begins with access.
The debate regarding recent shootings and their being motivated by the heat index provide an opportunity to provide critical explanations for violence. For instance, the Routine Activities Theory (RAT) in criminology considers the nexus between crime, environment, and situational factors. This theory holds that people are rational beings and intentional in their actions. Rational people are willing to engage in criminal behavior when the opportunity presents itself and it is perceived advantageous.
For a criminal act to occur the theory requires a 1. motivated offender, 2. a suitable target, and 3. the absence of capable guardians. When the aforementioned elements converge in the same location at the same time crime will result. It can be argued that select persons present at these mass shootings may have harbored ill intent (motivated offender) and identified persons they had conflict with whom were present also (suitable targets) be it teens or adults, and seeing a lack of capable guardians (i.e., violence interrupters and police no longer present) acted. These perpetrators chose violence in the form of using handguns in an attempt to impose harm and chose to mediate conflict on their respective terms with lack of consideration for the collateral damage they would leave behind.
The example provided, similar to the premise of hot weather as a driver of mass shootings, must not be considered in a vacuum. Another way to look at this is to consider that the number one form of gun violence – suicide. The reality is that access and opportunity increase the potential for that kind of violence – access to a weapon and a mental health issue that lends to suicidal ideation. There’s long-standing research on gun related suicide and the chemical imbalance that impacts our mental health, not necessarily related to the temperature.
We contend that access and opportunity explain violence.
Where violence is overwhelmingly domestic and the assailant usually knows the perpetrator, violence is an intrapersonal reality. Thus, environmental factors as well as gun law policy which restricts access can play a central role in addressing the increase in mass shootings.
When examining such events, we must consider a multitude of historical, cognitive, socio-economic, cultural, situational, and biological factors to get to the root of each unique mass shooting event. This is complicated and should not be explained based on rising temperatures alone.
Natasha C. Pratt-Harris, MS, PhD is an Associate Professor & Coordinator of Graduate Programs, Dept of Sociology, Anthropology, and (Criminology/Criminal Justice) Morgan State University. She also serves as Principal Investigator BPD Consent Decree Community Survey, and Principal Investigator NSF Grant Build and Broaden 2.0: Collaborative Research: Reimagining Policing by Making Neighborhoods Safe and Strong. She is the editor, and an author of the book Why the Police Should be Trained by Black People. Dr. Pratt-Harris can be reached at Natasha.PrattHarris@morgan.edu
Johnny Rice II, DrPH, MSCJ is a Research Fellow in the Bishop L. Robinson Sr. Justice Institute & Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Coppin State University. His interests are Epidemiological Criminology, Public Health, Race and Culture, Media, Youth Delinquency, Victimology, Family Studies (Fatherhood and Child Welfare), Urban Sociology, and Qualitative Social Research. He formerly served as Senior Program Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice in the Center on Victimization and Safety and can be reached at Jrice@coppin.edu