Comprehensive Study Establishes Causal Linkage Between Exposure To Gun Violence And Subsequent Gun Carrying

According to Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization focused on providing public access to information about gun violence in the United States, there have been almost 14 thousand gun-related incidents in 2018 thus far.

A new study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry aims to overcome the limitations of previous research, and explore the potential causal linkage between adolescent exposure to gun and non-gun related violence and subsequent firearm carrying. Titled "Gun- and Non-Gun–Related Violence Exposure and Risk for Subsequent Gun Carrying Among Male Juvenile Offenders," the study was co-authored by Jordan Beardslee, Edward Mulvey, Carol Schubert, Paul Allison, Arynn Infante, and Dustin Pardini.

Gun violence is associated with high injury and broad financial costs. Apart from that, exposure to violence is known to be a strong predictor of firearm carrying and violence. While previous research, the researchers wrote, indicates that young adults carry firearms for protection -- after witnessing violence -- this body of work has several significant limitations, with the most important one being the failure to rule out between-individual differences. Theirs, the authors claim, is an important study for a number of reasons.

  • A large, racially and ethnically diverse sample of male juvenile offenders were recruited
  • The study is focused on male juvenile offenders, which as a group that is -- previous research indicates -- disproportionately exposed to violence
  • Repeated assessments provided the authors with the unique opportunity to observe and analyze within-individual change
  • No previous study has managed to establish a time-ordered cause-effect relation


For the study, a sample of 1,170 male juvenile offenders were recruited in Pennsylvania and Arizona. The racially and ethnically diverse sample consisted of 42.1 percent black individuals, 34 percent Latino individuals, 19.2 percent of offenders were white, and 4.6 percent other. Each participant was recently adjudicated for a serious offense, 94 percent of which were felonies.

youth offenders young adults guns

At the time of recruitment, study participants were between 14 and 19 years of age. They were interviewed every six months for three years. This was followed by four annual assessments. Interviews were conducted by trained interviewees, with most of them taking place in a private setting -- most commonly participants' homes. Study participants were financially compensated for their time.

The researchers wrote the following.

"The Exposure to Violence Inventory (ETV) was used to assess time-varying measures of direct and vicarious exposure to gun- and non-gun–related violence. The 4 items assessing exposure to gun violence asked participants whether they had been shot or shot at since the previous interview and whether they had seen others victimized in the same manner. The 6 items assessing exposure to non-gun violence asked participants whether they had been beaten up, raped, or chased by someone who wanted to seriously hurt them during the recall period and whether they had seen others victimized in the same manner."
Furthermore, at each interview, the participant reported whether they had carried a gun since the previous interview. They were also asked to rate how many of their friends engaged in anti-social behavior (1 - "none of them", 5 - "all of them"). Approximately 16 percent of study participants missed a single interview. Seven percent missed two, four missed three interviews, and 10 percent missed at least four interviews.

Results and Conclusions

Results of this study indicate that exposure to gun violence significantly raises the risk of future gun carrying. Six hundred and eighty six study participants reported being exposed to gun violence, and 1,037 reported being exposed to non-gun violence, at least once during the study period. During the study period, 45 percent of participants had carried a gun, 90 percent were exposed to serious non-gun violence, and 60 percent were exposed to gun violence at least once. Forty young men died before the end of the study.

The authors explained these findings.

"Young men were significantly more likely to carry a gun in the time point after exposure to gun violence compared with other time points, controlling for all time-varying covariates. Specifically, a young man's odds of gun carrying were increased by approximately 43 [percent] in recall periods after he was exposed to gun violence. In contrast, exposure to non-gun violence was not significantly associated with gun carrying in the following time point."
In other words, young men with a history of criminal offending are 43 percent more likely to carry a gun, after being exposed to gun violence. Conversely, the researchers found no evidence that exposure to non-gun violence conferred the same risk for future firearm carrying. This, the authors claim, is perhaps their most important finding, because no previous study has examined exposure to gun violence and exposure to non-gun violence independently. Surveyed adolescents and young adults engaged in gun carrying because they had begun to view it as a normative part of life in their community.

firearm carrying youth

These findings, the authors wrote, are consistent with previous research, and clearly indicate that young men exposed to gun violence are likely to carry a firearm in the future. Furthermore, they are consistent with previous research that has indicated that individuals treated for firearm-related injuries are more likely to carry firearms in the future. The authors suggest a comprehensive approach to prevent gun carrying, with an emphasis on reducing gun violence in communities where it is prevalent. Likewise, hospitals and mental health care systems should aim to refer patients to intervention programs. Doing so, the researchers concluded, could ultimately save lives.