Youth gun violence has become an epidemic. Many experts agree gun policy needs to be viewed from a public health perspective. Below are articles outlining the most recent data on youth gun violence, state-of-the-art intervention programs, and evidence-based policy recommendations.
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Data and Statistics
Characteristics of School-Associated Youth Homicides — United States, 1994–2018
This report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) series finds that 70.4% of all school-associated youth homicides between 1994 and 2016 were committed with a firearm. The report includes analysis of 431 single and multiple-victim school-associated homicides among youth aged 5-18 years old based on coding and analysis of interviews, police reports, and media articles between 1994-2018.
According to the report, the majority of victims in single-victim cases were African American males between the ages of 15 and 18, while the majority of single-victim perpetrators were African American and Hispanic males between the ages of 15 and 18. Urban, public high schools had the highest frequency of single-victim, school-associated youth homicides. Gang retaliation and interpersonal disputes were the most frequent motivations. In comparison, victims of multiple-victim youth homicides were more equally represented between males and females. Noticeably, more multiple-victim homicides happened in the 5-14 age group than in single-victim incidents. The majority of victims in multiple-victim homicides were white youth; the perpetrators were primarily white males between the ages of 15 and 18. Retaliation was the most common motivation, and perpetrators were typically schoolmates or strangers.
The report concludes with the implication that racial/ethnic minority school youth are at a higher risk for being homicide victims than white youth,. and that school homicides happen with greater frequency in urban areas. This similarity in characteristics of school-associated and non-school-associated youth homicides indicate a need for broader, community-wide prevention initiatives that go beyond the school setting.
Firearm Homicides and Suicides in Major Metropolitan Areas – United States, 2012-2013 and 2015-2016
Firearm-related homicide and suicide rates are on the rise according to this report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) series. Analyzing recent data from the 50 most populated metropolitan areas of the US, the report finds that 3224 youth between the ages of 10 and 19 were killed in a firearm-related homicide and 2118 died in a firearm-related suicide in 2015-2016, with 87% of all youth homicides and 42% of all youth suicides involving a gun.
Contrary to a previous trend, firearm-related homicide and suicide rates are now increasing. The youth firearm-related homicide is up from a combined rate of 4.3 in the metropolitan areas measured in 2012-2013 to 4.7 in 2015-2016. The youth firearm-related suicide rate is up from 1.5 to 1.9. The authors say it is too soon to say if this is a short-term fluctuation or the beginning of a longer trend.
The report concludes by stressing the importance of ongoing tracking of gun violence rates as a way of supporting prevention efforts. For instance, safe gun storage is key to limiting children’s access to guns. Research has also shown that initiatives for housing and preventive policies in schools have reduced youth suicide rates. Further, rebuilding and improving the physical and social environments of urban areas has been shown to significantly reduce firearm-related homicides.
Household Gun Ownership and Youth Suicide Rates at the State Level, 2005−2015
In this article from Michael Siegel and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the authors find empirical evidence that household gun ownership is a significant factor contributing to youth suicide rates. According to the data analyzed in the study, 55% of the variation in youth suicide rates from state to state is explained by the variation in household gun ownership. The authors find that in states with the highest youth suicide rates, 52.5% of households had firearms; while in states with the lowest youth suicide rates, just 20% of households had firearms.
Suicide is the most common type of firearm-related death in the US, and an average of 3 children commit suicide daily. Previous research has reported a positive relationship between household gun ownership and suicide rates at the state level, but until now, none have examined youth suicide rates in relation to household gun ownership by controlling for state differences.
Drawing on household gun ownership data from a national representative sample of over 300,000 adults, the authors compare household gun ownership at the state level with data on youth suicide rates and self-reported youth suicide attempts at the state level. The study controlled for the known risks and socioeconomic factors that have been shown to affect youth suicide rates. In other words, the study presents convincing evidence that household gun ownership is an important factor contributing to youth suicides.
High School Youths, Weapons, and Violence: A National Survey
This research brief from the National Institute of Justice presents results from a national survey conducted in 1996 by Joseph Sheley and James Wright investigating the firearm and crime related activities of 734 male sophomores and juniors from 53 high schools nationwide. This survey was unique for its time because it asked questions specific to weapon exposure among non-delinquent American high schoolers in an effort to get closer to the experience of the “average” American juvenile with respect to firearms.
Among the youth sampled, only 29% had possession of at least one gun, and only 6% carried a gun outside of the home. Of this 6%, the majority carried their gun in a car, and half were automatic or semi-automatic handguns. The recreational use of guns was linked with possession of all kinds of firearms, but not related with status enhancement, criminality, or high-risk environments. Half the youth who responded believed it would be easy to obtain a gun. 48% of these were gifted or loaned a gun by friends and/or family. Of the 35% who had bought a gun, 53% bought one from a family member or friend.
While criminality was only characteristic of a small percentage of the sample, it was positively correlated with youth who possessed and carried automatic or semi-automatic handguns. Possession of automatic or semi-automatic handguns and carrying guns outside the home was positively correlated with youth who experienced all of the nine dangerous environment items in the survey. Of the youth who had carried guns, 43% felt they needed them for protection. The authors note that the majority of the students surveyed did not live in ‘truly’ unsafe conditions, but the fear of these conditions was present. The data indicates a stronger link between dangerous firearm-related activity and firearm possession in dangerous environments, then it does for firearm possession alone.
Credible Messenger Mentoring For Justice-Involved Youth
Youth justice interventions are only as good as they are relevant to the youth they are trying to reach. Credible messenger mentoring is a novel approach to youth justice intervention that is proving to be invaluable for reaching youth who are trapped in a cycle of neighborhood crime and violence. In this issue of the Pinkerton Papers, a publication of the Pinkerton Foundation, Ruben Austria and Julie Peterson analyze this method of youth mentoring and find that the life history of these messengers resonates with youth in a way that can’t be replicated by social work professionals or law enforcement officers. Their analysis supports the nationwide implementation of credible messenger mentoring.
Credible messengers are people who have been involved with the justice system, taken responsibility for their past behavior, and transformed their own lives in a positive way. This makes them cultural insiders to the often-impoverished world these youth live in. As paid professionals, the people chosen to become credible messengers undergo training and development in facilitating positive group interventions. They are available to the youth anytime, day or night, for the duration of the program. This allows the mentors to coach these young people through difficult life circumstances as only someone who has experienced similar circumstances could. In the process, the mentors themselves undergo further self-transformation, and the communities they are all part of benefit exponentially. While there are challenges to nationwide implementation of credible messenger mentoring, the paper concludes that the evidence shows it to be a highly effective method for reducing gun violence, criminal behavior, and recidivism rates among today’s at-risk youth. Further research and implementation of credible messenger mentoring could signal a positive change in the opportunities available for all American youth.
Cure Violence: Creating a World Without Violence
This primer outlines the methods and success of Cure Violence, an organization that has been working for over 20 years with local partners to reduce violence in the United States and around the world. Cure Violence was ranked 10th in NGO Advisor’s 2018 report on the top 500 NGOs in the world and 1st among NGOs devoted to preventing violence. Violence meets the standard definition for disease. Recent evidence shows violence spreads like a contagion. This discovery allows organizations like Cure Violence to use proven, contagion-stopping methods from the public health sector to stop the spread of violence. The Cure Violence model is evidence-based and has been replicated in many different locales and cultures.
In the US, communities in Baltimore saw a 44% decrease in shootings and a 56% decrease in killings after the Cure Violence program was implemented. In Chicago, communities where Cure Violence was present, saw a 41-73% reduction in shootings and killings with a full 100% decrease in retaliatory killings. In New York, 63% fewer shootings, more than a year without shootings or killings, and improved police relations resulted throughout multiple communities with Cure Violence. Globally, hot spots in Port of Spain, Trinidad saw a 67% decrease in attempted murders and a 33% decrease in armed persons reports following Cure Violence implementation. Communities in Cape Town, South Africa where Cure Violence was active had 53% fewer shootings and 31% fewer killings. The United Kingdom Youth Prison Program application of Cure Violence methods decreased group attacks by 95% and had a 51% reduction in overall violence.
Cure Violence staff work with local partners to develop culturally appropriate means to interrupt violence at its source. It offers services for youth and families that help alleviate some of the economic and emotional difficulties that can be prevalent in violence-prone areas. With citywide scaling, hospital response programs, and rapid reduction models, Cure Violence has become one of the best known methods for reducing the spread of violence in the United States and on five continents around the world.
Reducing Gun Violence: The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire
This research report from the National Institute of Justice summarizes the implementation and effects of Operation Ceasefire in Boston. With an average of 44 youth killed per year in 1996 when the project began, its aim was to develop a problem-oriented policing solution to the crime and victimization of Boston youth.
A comprehensive collection of agencies including representatives from federal agencies and the US Attorney’s office known as “The Working Group”, studied the problem and found the majority of the violence happened in neighborhoods notorious for gang activity. This inter-agency task force had the reach to bypass state proceedings when necessary to effectively and swiftly crackdown on violent gang members at the federal level. One of the keys to Project Ceasefire’s effectiveness was the direct communication with the gangs about why the crackdown was happening. They were told directly, through social workers, probation and parole officers, and community groups, that the pressure would lift when the shootings and killings stopped. They held public forums with gang members to showcase the breadth of their authority, and to let them know why their neighborhood was targeted.
The results of Operation Ceasefire were significant. Following the first intervention, youth homicide in Boston started a sharp decline. The study measured violence statistics until 1999. The results showed a 63% decline in youth homicides per month. Shots-fired calls reduced by 32% per month. A 25% reduction in gun assaults per month occurred. It is difficult to know exactly what dynamics caused the sustained reduction in Boston youth gun violence however, it is clear that Operation Ceasefire played a significant role. The novel approach of Operation Ceasefire represented new possibilities for communities to address youth gun violence through problem-solving policing strategies and clear communication of initiatives.
Storage Practices of US Gun Owners in 2016
In this article from the American Journal of Public Health, researchers find that only 46% of gun owners surveyed practice safe gun storage with each of the guns in their household. The survey also finds that 34% of respondents have children under the age of 18 residing in the home where guns are present. Safe gun storage involves limiting the availability of guns to those who are not authorized to use them by using gun safes, trigger locks, and/or storing ammunition away from the gun. Previous research has shown that households with guns have an increased risk of gun injuries and death, and safe storage practices are one of the most effective ways to reduce these risks. This study suggests that the credibility of those teaching gun storage practices affects whether and how gun owners store their guns.
The survey of 1444 randomly selected gun owners from across the US finds that 24% of respondents store all their guns unlocked, although a quarter of these respondents do use trigger locks; 22% of respondents store all their guns in a locked cabinet or safe; 44% of respondents store their guns assembled but unloaded; and 71% of respondents store their ammunition in a locked location. Non-Hispanic white participants made up 76% of the sample population, 66% of the participants were male, and 60% were over the age of 45.
The researchers also investigated the best means for persuading gun owners to safely store guns. They find that respondents consider physicians effective at teaching why guns should be stored safely but that they were the least influential in teaching gun owners how to safely store their guns. The most influential people to teach about gun storage practices were those with experience handling and using guns, such as law enforcement, official NRA communications, and/or family members. 43% of respondents expressed concerns about home defense, suggesting this is a major reason for reluctance to adopt safe gun storage practices with every gun in the home.
Guns, Public Health and Mental Illness: An Evidence-Based Approach for State Policy
This report from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy (Consortium) comes out of a two-day conference convened in March of 2013 to discuss research and find areas of agreement for advancing evidence-based policy recommendations for gun violence prevention. As a result, the Consortium supports three different approaches to state-level intervention.
The first approach involves modifying disqualification policies for the mentally-ill on the basis of the evidence that the large majority of mentally-ill people do not commit violence against others any more frequently than anyone commits violence against others. The second approach expands gun prohibition laws to include individuals who exhibit behavior that scientific research has shown to accompany increased violence. The key to these policy changes is the temporary nature of the gun prohibition. Without due process, it is unconstitutional to permanently remove gun rights from individuals, unless they have been committed or convicted of a violent crime. Therefore, a clear, realistic restoration process must accompany any policy for the temporary removal of firearm access.The third approach introduces a way to remove guns from those who pose a high risk of hurting themselves or others. The goal of the Consortium is to inform gun policy through evidence-based criteria in a way that is both meaningful to those impacted by gun violence and respectful to those impacted by gun policy.
The Consortium makes these recommendations under the authority of expertly analyzed evidence-based research. The rights of citizens are the utmost priority; a solid and clear restoration policy is included with every temporary prohibition recommended. Public safety and evidence-based research are top priorities for the Consortium in making these recommendations.