July 10, 1996

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The majority of incarcerated youth who report having owned a gun say they obtained it before age 15, more than half were given the gun and did not have to seek it out, and a high proportion reported feeling anxious about being caught with the gun, say researchers from Emory University's School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health who report in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association the findings of a study of 62 juvenile offenders.

The researchers conducted extensive interviews with youth aged 13 to 18 who were being held in five Atlanta detention facilities. Specifically, they learned the following:

  • Fifty-three (84 percent) of the teenagers interviewed had owned a gun, and most (84 percent) had obtained it before age 15 even though they may not have been arrested until late adolescence. "This implies that intervention projects need to start before high school," says Dr. Peter Ash, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
    '"I got it from my ex-boyfriend. He gave it to me for protection because I was hanging out with this gang. If I wasn't strapped, they would have to hang around me constantly for protection. I carried it with me always."' (female, age 13)

  • More than half of the handgun owners obtained their gun passively. Most were given the gun by a peer, older youth or relative "for protection" ; some found it. "Therefore, interventions need also to be addressed to those who are giving youth guns," says co-investigator Arthur Kellermann, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Control at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health.
    '"[My] brother bought it and gave it to me for protection after my other brother was killed."' (male, age 16)

  • A high proportion (34 percent) of the boys and girls reported feeling anxious or scared when carrying a gun, usually about the risk of being stopped by the police. Eighty-nine percent of gun owners said the main reason for carrying a gun was for protection. "This suggests that active police enforcement against youth suspected of carrying guns will provide a meaningful disincentive to carrying," Dr. Ash says. "Most youth report they carry guns because they are afraid and want to feel safer, even at the cost of anxiety about being caught with a gun. The stereotype that most adolescents are carrying guns to be macho or impress their peers is not supported in our data."
    '"You feel safer. You can protect yourself. If you don't have [a gun] you'll be paranoid and always watching your back. You feel more authoritative when you have a gun and have fun instead of being paranoid."' (female, age 17)

  • Half of the girls interviewed had owned a handgun. "While this is less than the boys we studied (more than 90 percent of whom owned a gun), the patterns of obtaining and carrying guns among girl gun owners were not significantly different from those of boys," Dr. Ash says.
    '"I'd carry it only at night because I was too afraid during the day. I was scared people would see it. I used to wear baggy clothes so I'd hide it in them. At night I'd hide it under the bed."' (female, age 14)

Two-thirds of the youth were African-American and the remaining third were non-Hispanic whites. Just over one third were associated with gangs; "gang membership was not associated with the subjects' gun-carrying pattern or the age at which they obtained their first handgun," the authors report. Most respondents say they are most likely to carry their gun to a club ('"that's where my enemies are,"' one teenager says) and are least likely to carry it to school for fear of being caught with it; "as a result, they usually hid the gun outside the building," When asked who they might approach to acquire a gun, 83 percent said drug dealers. Some described '"community guns,"'hidden for use by a number of different people.

"All respondents knew personally of at least one person who had been shot; 76 percent claimed they had witnessed at least one shooting," the authors say. "Almost three-fourths had been threatened by an armed offender. Forty-eight percent claimed they had been shot at themselves."

Forty-one of the youth gun owners had pointed a gun at someone at least once, and 29 boys and four girls claimed they had shot at another person.

"If boys and girls are acquiring firearms as young as the age of 8 or 9 years, education about the dangers of guns must be initiated in elementary school," Dr. Ash says. "If juveniles are acquiring guns primarily for protection or an enhanced sense of power, programs that teach survival skills or enhance self-esteem may reduce demand for guns. If many gun-carrying adolescents worry about their chances of arrest, increased enforcement activity may deter some from carrying guns. If fewer adolescents carried guns on the street, others might feel less need to arm themselves for self-protection.

"Many of our respondents noted that it is easy for adolescents to acquire firearms. This suggests that efforts to reduce the demand for illegal guns should be matched by efforts to reduce the supply. Safe storage of guns in the home could decrease diversion through burglary or theft. Adults who illegally supply guns to juveniles should be identified and prosecuted. Any program to reduce gun carrying by adolescents should be rigorously evaluated to determine its effectiveness."

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