New study sheds light on reasons behind teenage gun toting

July 24, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio - More African-American teenagers die from firearm homicide than by any other cause, a sobering fact driving researchers to ask why some teens choose to carry a gun.

In a new study of African-American youths at risk of dropping out of school, nearly one out of five students reported that they had carried a gun at some point during their high school years - one in six did so only occasionally, while one in 20 carried a gun regularly.

"The good news is that the vast majority of youths in this study never carried a gun, said Kenneth Steinman, a study co-author and an assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State University's School of Public Health. "But one in five is still a disturbingly high number and is consistent with figures reported in similar previous studies."

Teens who carried guns were more likely to be involved with selling drugs or fighting. How often a teen carried a gun depended on his level of involvement in either activity, Steinman said.

"For many teens, carrying a gun is not just another general indicator of problem behavior - it may suggest a pattern of behavior that is more serious," he said, adding that other risky behaviors, such as trying drugs and alcohol, are something that many young people experiment with and ultimately outgrow.

Steinman analyzed data from a study conducted by Marc Zimmerman, a professor with the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. Their article appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The researchers interviewed 682 urban African American students annually throughout high school, including those who had dropped out of school. All participants were part of a larger study of students at risk for leaving school before graduation.

Each teen in the current study was asked how many times in the past 12 months he or she had carried a gun. Possible answers ranged from none to four times or more.

At the end of the study, the researchers separated the participants into three groups: non-carriers (teens who never carried a gun); episodic, or occasional, carriers (those who admitted at one or two interviews that they had carried a gun during the previous year); and persistent, or regular, carriers (those who reported at three or four interviews that they had carried a gun during the previous year.)

One in five teens reported that they had carried a gun at least once - 15 percent reported carrying a gun occasionally (an average of 0.6 times per year), while 5 percent had carried a gun regularly (an average of 2.5 times per year.)

Regular gun carriers were more likely to have actually used a knife or gun to threaten another person at some point during high school: 83 percent had used a weapon, compared to half of the occasional gun carriers and 16 percent of non-carriers. Also, boys were three times more likely than girls to carry a gun regularly and twice as likely to carry a gun occasionally.

To figure out what drove one-fifth of the participants to carry a gun, the teens were also asked at each annual interview if they had ever felt victimized, how many people they knew who carried a gun, if they had gotten into a serious fight at school or work and if they had sold illegal drugs.

Selling drugs and fighting were the most common activities among teens that toted guns. The frequency of involvement in either activity, however, set apart occasional from regular carriers - the latter group was more likely to sell drugs or get into fights.

Steinman believes that these findings suggest that carrying a gun shouldn't be lumped together with other, often experimental, adolescent risk behaviors, such as delinquency and substance use.

"Those kinds of behaviors are often limited to youthful experimentation during adolescence and have a lot to do with peer influence," he said. "Whereas young people who carry guns are more likely to get in fights and use alcohol and other drugs, relatively few adolescents who exhibit these other sorts of problem behaviors also carry guns.
A grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse funded this study.

Contact: Kenneth Steinman, 614-293-8632;
Written by Holly Wagner, 614-292-8310;

Ohio State University

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