Perceived Gun Access and Gun Carrying Among Male Adolescent Offenders

Date01 April 2020
AuthorCarol Schubert,Dustin Pardini,Spencer Keil,Edward Mulvey,Jordan Beardslee
Published date01 April 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Perceived Gun Access and
Gun Carrying Among Male
Adolescent Offenders
Spencer Keil
, Jordan Beardslee
, Carol Schubert
Edward Mulvey
, and Dustin Pardini
Gun violence takes a significant toll on adolescents in the United States, and there is a lack of
longitudinal research on perceptual factors that drive gun carrying. Notably, there is no information
on the relationship between perception of gun accessibility and gun carrying. Using data collected
between 2000 and 2006 in the Pathways to Desistance Study, we examine the effects of perceived
access to guns in a sample of adolescent offenders. A generalized estimating equations approach
tested the effect of perceived gun access along with other known risk factors for gun carrying across
time. Even after adjusting for these other risk factors, perceived gun access was significantly related
to future carrying. Our findings support self-reported gun availability as a significant, population-
based risk factor related to gun carrying in high-risk youth. Further research on how perceived
access mediates the decision to carry guns would be valuable for formulating effective gun policy.
gun violence, adolescents, juvenile offenders, gun access
The Need for Adolescent Gun Research
Gun violence is much more prevalent in the United States than in other developed nations (Grinsh-
teyn & Hemenway, 2016), taking substantial, disproportionate tolls on adolescent minority males
and minority communities (Smith & Cooper, 2013). Although there has been a general decline in
overall firearm violence since the 1990s (Planty & Truman, 2013), approximately 38,000 people still
die every year because of gun-related violence, with two more persons injured for every person
killed (Xu, Murphy, Kochanek, Bastian, & Arias, 2018). The toll in young lives lost is substantial,
with gun violence claiming nearly 5,000 lives per year among youth aged 10–24 (Web-Based Injury
Statistics Query and Reporting System, 2018). These impacts have prompted statements from the
Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Criminology & Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Spencer Keil, Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, 3811 O’Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA
15213, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2020, Vol. 18(2) 179-195
ªThe Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204019865312
National Research Council (NRC) and American Psychological Association (APA) for increased
research to examine the broad range of individual and contextual risk factors related to gun violence
(APA, 2013; Institute of Medicine [IOM] & NRC, 2013).
Understanding the factors related to both gun carrying and gun use is necessary in these research
efforts. Studies on risk factors for gun carrying have considered a wide range of possible variables,
including factors related to involvement in violence more broadly (Lizotte, Krohn, Howell, Tobin, &
Howard, 2000; Resnick, Ireland, & Borowsky, 2004; Spano, Pridemore, & Bolland, 2012). While it
is possible that factors related to violence more generally are distinct from those associated with gun
carrying specifically (as well as gun use), inclusion of these factors provides a domain of variables to
consider that have a demonstrated relationship to a highly related behavior. This body of work
generally focuses on systems of individual, social, an d contextual risk factors that interact and
develop over time to explain involvement in gun carrying and use, rather than the role of any one
specific risk factor (Dodge, Greenberg, & Malone, 2008).
It is notable that there is limited work using longitudinal data to identify and examine risks for
gun carrying and use and, importantly, testing how the development of risk factors across time
predicts these behaviors. Longitudinal investigations would be valuable, however, since they would
provide solid estimates of the impact of shifts in a risk factor or behavior and subsequent gun
carrying or use, both across populations and within individuals. As widely noted (APA, 2013; IOM
& NRC, 2013), such approaches could be particularly valuable, potentially providing sound, empiri-
cally based findings to focus prevention efforts and to counteract some prevalent myths currently
driving public discourse on this topic.
Access to Guns by Adolescents
It is important to first note that most adolescents do not carry or use guns. In the most recent Youth Risk
Behavioral Survey, about 5%of high school youths reported carrying in the past month. This behavior
is consistently higher in males than females, with some reasons to believe that processes underpinning
gun carrying among females may be qualitatively different than those seen in males (Kann et al.,
2018). Rates also differ across some ethnicity groups (Blacks, Hispanics) during particular historical
eras. At the peak of homicides among Black adolescents in the early 1990s, the rate of gun carrying
among Black males was about twice that of white males. In more recent years (since approximately
2010), the rates among different ethnicity groups have been roughly equivalent (Webster, Meyers, &
Buggs, 2014). In adolescents involved with the juvenile justice system, regular carrying in the prior
year is reported as high as 38%or 55%(Ash, Kellermann, Fuqus-Whitley, & Johnson, 1996; Sheley &
Wright, 1993). Reducing gun carrying in adolescents at high risk of this behavior is a potentially
valuable component of any strategy for reducing the overall toll from gun violence.
Statutory regulations clearly restrict adolescents’ access to firearms, particularly handguns. U.S.
federal law bars persons under the age of 21 from purchasing or possessing handguns (Gun Control
Act, 1968). However, these statutory restrictions related to legal sales have been ineffective, at least
partially due to the sheer number of handguns currently in circulation in the United States. Regu-
lations on legal gun transactions can only have limited effectiveness when estimates indicate that
there are somewhere near 300 million guns in private ownership in the United States (Wellford,
Pepper, & Petrie, 2005).
Perhaps not surprising, then, many young people (40%of high school males, 70%of male
juvenile offenders) believe they could easily acquire a firearm illegally (Bergstein, Hemenway,
Kennedy, Quaday, & Ander, 1996; Callahan & Rivara, 1992; Callahan, Rivara, & Farrow, 1993;
Reich, Culross, & Behrman, 2002; Sheley & Wright, 1993). The use of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco,
and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) tracing data and survey studies of juvenile offenders have
provided valuable insights into how young people acquire guns. Most illegally acquired guns
180 Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 18(2)

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