INVESTIGATION: Exploring the relationship between heat and gun violence

Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 7:27 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Ahead of the dangerously high temperatures, we’re expecting Friday. WDBJ7′s has been investigating how heat affects communities here at home.

Virginia Tech researcher Theo Lim has been studying heat in Roanoke for 3 years. Specifically, he’s been working with the Northwest Roanoke City community.

“You have higher proportions of minority residents, fewer English-speaking people, lower incomes,” explained Lim. “And all of that correlates to higher social vulnerability because they have less access to resources.”

In 2020, a Roanoke City study found some areas can be up to 15 degrees hotter than other parts. Areas such as Northwest Roanoke have some of the hottest temperatures in the city. This is due to development in the area and less tree canopy.

Lim says dangerous levels of heat can intensify other social stressors in the community.

“So, if you’re talking about things like gun violence, domestic violence, affordability, and poverty – heat will just make all of those things worse,” added Lim. “And so, that’s why we think of a compounding stressor in these communities.”

Public health researchers with universities in Boston and Washington have studied how hotter days correlate with increased gun violence. The study found that between 2015 and 2020 nearly 7% of all shootings in 100 cities were linked to higher temperatures. That may seem like a small percentage, but it represents nearly 8,000 shootings over 5 years.

Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission chair Joe Cobb says this is something they have been tracking.

“In the watershed areas particularly in Northwest Roanoke, there were fewer incidents of gun violence. So, whether that’s along the greenway in the more forested areas where we have more green space,” explained Cobb. “We saw fewer incidents in those areas.”

From January 1st to August 13th 2023, Roanoke City Police data shows 33 of the 48 gun-related incidents where a victim was hit by gun fire have been in Northwest Roanoke. Two incident locations are unknown.

“When we talk about hot spots, we’re not only talking about hot spots related to crime – we could probably clearly overlay that with hot spots in the heat mapping index,” added Cobb.

Cobb says the city and the police department are looking into environmental solutions, like planting trees.

It’s a strategy supported by the national study, researchers suggested adding trees and vegetation to cool cities.

“We’re looking at what is the tree cover here. Are the lights working in the neighborhood? How many blighted properties are there? Are there a lot of abandoned cars? What are some things we can address and mitigate,” said Cobb.

Lim says he’s focused on finding solutions for the neighborhood.

“I contacted the city and was very interested in how we could work directly with the residents in those communities to figure out what we could do about the problem right,” said Lim. “It’s not enough to just know that those areas are hotter.”

On Thursday, WDBJ7 will look into the potential solutions.