Gun Control

Is 'Youth Gun Carrying' a Public Health Threat?

The answer, like the frequency of youth gun carrying, may vary from state to state.


Everett Area High School, Everett, Pennsylvania

Does it surprise you to learn that teenagers in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Virginia are more likely to report having carried a gun in the last month than teenagers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York? Does it worry you? Ziming Xuan and David Hemenway, the authors of a study published yesterday by JAMA Pediatrics, think it should, and CNN seems to agree. What's not clear is why.

Xuan and Hemenway looked at responses to the following question in the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey: "During the past 30 days, on how many days did you carry a gun?" Notably, the survey does not ask why respondents carried a gun. Maybe they went hunting or target shooting. Maybe they are on a high school riflery team. Maybe they used a gun to defend themselves, to scare off a burglar, or to rob a bank.

Xuan and Hemenway simply assume that carrying a gun is bad, and they proceed to link that frightening phenomenon to the strictness of each state's firearm regulations, based on three years of survey data from 38 states. Not surprisingly, the states with strict gun laws, which also tend to be the states with the lowest rates of gun ownership, are the ones where high school students are least likely to report having carried a gun at least once during the previous month. Or as Xuan and Hemenway put it:

A 10-point increase in the state gun law score, which represented a more restrictive gun law environment, was associated with a 9% decrease in the odds of youth gun carrying….Adult gun ownership mediated the association between state gun law score and youth gun carrying…

More restrictive overall gun control policies are associated with a reduced likelihood of youth gun carrying. These findings are relevant to gun policy debates about the critical importance of strengthening overall gun law environment to prevent youth gun carrying.

Here is another association I bet Xuan and Hemenway would find: People in Wyoming, New Mexico, and Virginia are less keen to "prevent youth gun carrying" than people in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, because they see nothing inherently wrong with it. To the contrary, training teenagers how to properly use a gun may be a respected and cherished part of their culture, no matter how horrifying that might seem to a couple of public health researchers in Boston.

CNN notes that "the study did not address whether fewer teenagers carrying guns could lead to less youth gun violence and death" but quotes Xuan as calling that "a reasonable conclusion." Again, I suspect the perceived reasonableness of that conclusion also is correlated with firearm regulations and rates of gun ownership, which in turn are correlated with attitudes toward guns. Xuan and Hemenway concede that "neighborhood-level unmeasured factors, including culture and attitudes toward guns, and individual-level factors, including socioeconomic status, may confound the association between gun laws and youth gun carrying." 

Despite the uncertainty about the reasons teenagers come into contact with guns, the risks posed by such contact, and the causal role of gun laws (as opposed to the gun culture they reflect), Xuan and Hemenway think their study illustrates "the critical importance of comprehensive state-level gun law environment to prevent youth gun carrying," since "gun violence poses a substantial public health threat to adolescents in the United States."

CNN's headline suggests sympathy for this point of view: "Study: Stricter State Gun Laws Keep Firearms Out of Hands of Youth." Something we all want, right?

[Thanks to CharlesWT for the tip.]