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Recession-hit US reels from violence surge

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A spate of high-profile mass killings in the United States in the past six months show the impact that the economic meltdown is having on rising violence, experts say.

The recession's fallout on victims of domestic violence is also being felt as donation-starved shelters fill to capacity and are forced to turn away abused women.

Criminologist Jack Levin says there is a clear link between the economy and rising body counts.

"A mass killer is someone who has almost always suffered a catastrophic loss -- that's the link between a recession and mass killings," he says, citing the loss of a job, the loss of a lot of money or the loss of a relationship.

With exact motives still being investigated, signs of troubled times were evident this week in a number of gruesome massacres across the country.

A heavily armed gunman shot dead eight people at a North Carolina nursing home, days after six people were killed in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in northern California's Silicon Valley.

On Saturday US media reported a brutal scene discovered at a Boston home -- a man had stabbed to death his 17-year-old sister, decapitated his five-year-old sister and began stabbing another sister before being shot by police.

Direct correlations may not always immediately surface, but Levin, criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says the trends are clear.

"Catastrophic losses serve as inspiration, or precipitant," he told AFP.

In a severe recession there are simply more people suffering such a loss, he says.

In an economic downturn, the United States often sees "many more large-body-count murders -- on the job, in the family -- as many more Americans feel desperate in a situation they feel got completely out of control."

Mass killings are almost always "methodical and selective," says Levin, pointing to a similar spike in murders during the early 1990s US recession.

In that period "many workers were being laid off and the number of vengeful workers who killed their bosses skyrocketed.

"And too often these revenge-seeking ex-workers would not only kill their boss, but their co-workers as well."

After the economy unraveled in September and further nosedived into 2009, clusters of large body counts surfaced, linked to the sort of loss Levin describes.

In January a father apparently upset over the loss of his job shot dead his wife and five children before killing himself in a Los Angeles suburb.

In December a gunman dressed as Santa Claus stormed a Los Angeles home of his former in-laws on Christmas Eve and opened fire on his ex-wife and her family, killing nine people before killing himself.

In November a recently fired engineer in California killed three colleagues, and in October a 45-year-old man shot his wife, three children and mother-in-law before killing himself, reportedly because of financial woes.

Domestic abuse also increased during the early 1990s recession, says Levin, and it was clearly linked to the economy.

"Husbands, fathers dedicated to their families as breadwinners lost their jobs and felt they would never again have control over their families."

Cindy Southworth, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, warns against labeling recessions as a time for more abuse.

"A bad economy doesn't cause domestic violence, just as a good economy doesn't cure domestic violence," she told AFP.

But Southworth says a bad economy "disproportionately impacts victims of domestic violence, and shelters that support them.

"If there is already domestic violence in a home, an abuser might have lost his job and is now home all day, as opposed to just the evenings. There's more risk time."

Chitra Raghavan, a psychology professor and domestic violence expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says even if economic downturnsdon't cause abuse, they make an impact.

"In a recession, if you lose a job, you're not going to going to be able to find another job. That leads to a particular type of hopelessness, and that intensifies in a recession."

Abusers, nearly always men (as are the mass killers), can be "stuck in a cycle: unemployed, humiliated, distrustful, hopeless."

"Previous insecurities get worse, especially if the woman is working and he's not. Longstanding anger can erupt in these moments," says Raghavan.

Southworth says that because financial strings are tightened, shelters get less donations "as requests for help are skyrocketing," and crowded shelters are forced to turn women away.

"What makes it heartbreaking: the amount of courage it takes to call a stranger and say 'I'm in danger, I'm being battered by the person who I love, can you help me?' And then having to say to them 'we're so sorry, our shelter is full.'"