Study: The Kids These Days, They Have Lots of Illegal Guns

Of youth seen in a Michigan E.R. for assault-related injuries, nearly one in four owned a firearm of their own.
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PROBLEM: In today's issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers led by Dr. Patrick Carter at the University of Michigan get into why "firearm violence is a leading cause of death among youth." Here, via Johns Hopkins, are the numbers on the causes of death in the second decade of life in the United States:

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I'm not sure why they used all those subtle shades of green, which misses the point of a pie chart. Unless it's an allusion to the subtleties of the social factors behind these deaths. Like how when we say, as the Michigan team does in their journal article, that "firearms were responsible for 85 percent of the homicide-related deaths among adolescents." Some would take issue with that wording. 

Still it's tough to argue that keeping assault weapons away from at-risk youth is unsound policy. The researchers also note that firearm-related homicides among adolescents in the U.S. are around 40 times more common than in other developed countries.

METHODOLOGY: Carter and team kept data on "youth" (defined as 14 to 24 years-old) who came to an emergency department in Flint, Michigan, for assault-related injuries over the course of a two year period. They measured rates and characteristics of these young people's relationships with firearms, as well as attitudes toward aggression and histories of substance use and violence.

RESULTS: Excluding people who owned guns for purposes of hunting, of 689 assault-injured youth, 23 percent had (carried or owned) a firearm themselves. Only 17 percent came into them legally. Many were automatics and semiautomatics. Correlations with gun possession included being male, higher socioeconomic status, recent serious fights, and aggressive attitudes "that increase their risk for retaliatory violence."

IMPLICATIONS: Illegal firearm ownership is much more common among the sort of young people who end up in the emergency room for assault-related injuries than it is among broader ER populations and in school-based studies. The most common reason these kids say they have their gun is for protection. Carter et al. conclude, "Future prevention efforts should focus on minimizing illegal firearm access among high-risk youth." We might also help these kids feel protected without needing to carry an automatic.


The full study, "Firearm Possession Among Adolescents Presenting to an Urban Emergency Department for Assault" is published in today's issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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