Young people between the ages 14 and 24 in the U.S. die from firearm-related murders at 42 times the rate that they do in nearly two dozen other developed countries. In other words, if you’re between the ages of 14 and 24 and you live in the U.S., your chances of being killed with a gun are 42 times higher than if you lived in most other developed countries. A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics looked at how many youth who go to the ER as a result of gun violence own guns themselves — and where they get their firearms. Many of the findings of the study may not seem surprising — more firearm victims also owned guns, and most of the guns were obtained illegally. Still, more of this kind of research is necessary to learn the best policies that might eventually help reduce gun violence.
Such research on firearm injuries had been banned until the Obama administration removed a 17-year-long moratorium on firearm injury research. Hopefully this study is one of many more to come that can provide policymakers with a stronger evidence base for using research-based approaches to reducing gun violence.
The researchers, led by Dr. Patrick Carter at the University of Michigan Injury Center in Ann Arbor, surveyed 689 youth who came to the emergency department in Flint, Michigan with injuries related to assault (excluding child abuse, suicide attempts and sexual assault). The patients were all 14 to 24 years old, and the survey questions asked about the patients’ characteristics, firearm ownership, attitudes toward aggression, substance use and past history of violence.
About a quarter of those surveyed (23%) said they had carried or owned a firearm within the past six months, but only 17% of those with guns had gotten the gun legally. About 17% said they got the gun from a friend and 17% said they paid cash, and about half the youth said it would not be difficult to get a firearm. Among the youth who said they had carried or owned a gun, one in five had an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.
Given the number of youth in the study who had gotten a gun from a family member or friend, Dr. Robert Sege at the Boston University School of Medicine wrote in an accompanying editorial that the study’s findings provide reasons to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations regarding firearms: “that there should either be no guns in the home or, when that is not possible, the gun(s) should be stored unloaded and locked, with ammunition locked separately.”
The youths’ most commonly cited reason for carrying a gun is a familiar one: more than a third (37%) said they had the gun for protection. “The perceived need to own and carry firearms for protection among respondents with assault injury suggests a need to address youth’s perceived and real feeling of safety through individual and community intervention,” the authors wrote. Other reasons included “holding it for someone” (reported by 10% of those with guns) or having one because their “friends carry guns” (reported by 9%).
When the researchers looked at other characteristics of the patients, they found several patterns: the gun owners were more likely to be male, to use illegal drugs and to have been in a recent serious fight. For example, 40% of the gun owners binge drank, compared to 27% who didn’t own guns, and 67% of the gun owners used illegal drugs, compared to 49% of the non-gun-owners. White and black youth were equally likely to have guns, and higher income youth were more likely to have guns.
Most youth in both groups had been in serious physical fights in the past six months (86% of gun owners and 80% of non-gun-owners), but more than twice as many of the gun owners had caused an injury that required medical treatment. While 21% of non-gun-owners had caused such an injury in the past six months, 46% of the gun owners had. There were also high rates of intimate partner violence in both groups: 76% of youth who owned guns and 64% of those who didn’t reported violence with their romantic partner.
Those who had owned guns were also slightly more likely to have an aggressive or vengeful attitude, which is important “because health behavior models, which are key to many violence prevention efforts, suggest the first step to decreasing future aggression would be to modify aggressive attitudes.”
Unsurprisingly, those who owned guns were more likely to have been previous victims of gun violence (21% compared to 15%), to have been previously threatened by a gun (56% compared to 33%), to have pulled a gun in a fight (22% compared to 1%), or to have used the gun in a fight with someone they were dating (6% compared to 1%). However, one interesting finding was that only 3% of the youth in the whole study were involved in a gang, which included 9% of those who owned guns and 1% of those who didn’t.
The authors noted that their findings reveal how a gun owned reportedly for “defensive” purposes can also end up being used for non-defensive purposes. “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that even if the main reason youth reported that they obtained a gun was for protection, they are often both carrying and using the weapon,” the authors wrote. “In combination with high rates of substance use reported before the altercation, and higher rates of substance use seen in youth with firearms, this is particularly concerning for inadvertently increasing the risk of a firearm moving from a protective device to impulsive use and lethal outcomes.”
In his editorial, Dr. Sege pointed out the frustrating reality that great strides have been made in children’s public health when it comes to decreasing kids’ exposure to cigarette smoke, reducing lead poisoning in children, reducing kids’ car accident deaths and increasing efforts to address childhood obesity — yet “our failure to develop a public health response to gun deaths stands out as a unique exception.”
Dr. Sege notes one major reason for this lack of progress relates to the strangled research on gun injuries: only about $102,997 of the CDC’s $6.5 billion budget of the past three years has been devoted to firearm injury prevention. Insufficient funding has a predictable effect: “According to a study commissioned by Mayors Against Gun Violence, the volume of academic research on firearms violence has dropped by 60% since 1996, now accounting for only 30 articles per million academic publications,” Dr. Sege notes.
The Obama administration has pledged $10 million for the CDC to conduct further firearm injury research, but in the current funding climate it remains to be seen whether the funds are actually restored. If they are, the subsequent research and increasing awareness of gun violence as a major public health concern will hopefully push sensible, evidence-based firearm-related policies higher on legislative agendas.