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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman

Strategies for Addressing the Problem (2/4)

Although CAP laws and programs designed to promote safe storage of guns have shown mixed results to date, parents still may be more promising targets for education and prevention efforts than are children and youth. As noted in the article by Hardy, it is difficult to persuade children and adolescents to stay away from guns or behave responsibly around them. Young children and those in elementary school frequently lack the ability to judge their probable risk of injury, identify hazardous situations, spot ways to prevent injury, or apply safety lessons they have learned in a classroom to the real world. In one experiment, for example, preschool children and their parents attended a session in which a police officer discussed the dangers of guns and asked children to promise never to touch one. After the session, the children were videotaped playing in a room where toy and real guns were hidden. Despite their promises, the children who had attended the class found and played with real guns at virtually the same rate as children who had received no instruction.67

Adolescents may have more of the cognitive maturity necessary to understand and apply gun safety lessons, but they also frequently have trouble assessing the risk of injury, and some are highly susceptible to peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors. Several researchers have documented that peer pressure plays a pivotal role in youth gun carrying; adolescents whose peers carry guns are more likely to feel the need to carry guns themselves.28,68 So far, the data evaluating programs that help adolescents to develop skills to resist peer pressure, make responsible choices about guns, and resolve conflicts peacefully do not show that the programs have been effective at reducing youth gun violence.52

Thus, the potential of educational approaches aimed at children and adolescents appears to be limited, making it critical that parents understand the risks that guns pose to their children, and take action to shield their children from unsupervised exposure to guns. Policymakers, educators, and health care professionals should expand their efforts to promote stronger parental monitoring, as well as safe storage, so that children and youth do not have unsupervised access to guns.


Federal and state policymakers, in conjunction with public health experts and educators, should initiate creative public awareness and educational efforts—and evaluate existing approaches—to encourage stronger parental monitoring of children's exposure to guns and safe storage of guns in the home.

Engaging Communities to Reduce Youth Gun Violence

Even the most vigilant parents cannot shield their children fully from exposure to gun violence among their peers, in their schools, and in their neighborhoods. Therefore, any strategy to reduce gun violence must engage communities in prevention efforts.

In some communities, particularly those, as noted in the article by Fagan in this journal issue, "where disorder and crime are conflated with poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage," social norms against violence have broken down, fostering conditions where youth gun violence can thrive. In these environments, many youth feel the need to arm themselves for self-protection.24,28

To convince youth that carrying guns is not necessary or desirable, communities need to become safer. Because poverty, discrimination, and violence are often linked,69 one way to decrease violence is to address economic inequality and social injustice in the United States. Indeed, as the article by Forman in this journal issue notes, some believe this is the only way to reduce youth gun violence. For example, researcher Gary Kleck, who has written extensively about the limits of gun control in reducing gun crime, argues,

Significant, lasting reductions in violence are not likely to be produced by revisions in the criminal laws, reallocation of law enforcement resources, or tinkering with crime control strategies, whether they involve the conservative panaceas of 'getting tough' on criminals and making war on drugs, or the liberal panaceas of offender rehabilitation and gun control. In the long run, solving the violence problem will have to involve reducing economic inequality, injustice, and the social disorder these generate. It will have to involve improving the life chances of the underclass that contributes both the bulk of the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime.70

Clearly, the economic and social factors that underlie youth gun violence must be addressed. Eliminating economic disadvantage and racism are important long-term societal goals, and would undoubtedly reduce youth violence while improving a broad range of outcomes for children. At the same time, however, policymakers and communities should not lose sight of a more proximate cause of youth gun violence: the guns themselves. As the article by Blumstein notes, one of the key factors in the rise of youth gun violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the diffusion of handguns into young people's hands. As researchers Jeffrey Fagan and Deanna Wilkinson have written, "The ready availability of guns in the inner city has undoubtedly shaped and skewed street codes toward the expectation of lethal violence."71

Community leaders should take steps to change this expectation. They can promote young people's safety by sending unequivocal messages to youth that gun violence is not an acceptable way to resolve conflict. Elected officials, faith leaders, and educators all can play key roles in enforcing social norms against youth gun use. Because many youth who carry guns report obtaining them from family members and friends,72 community leaders also should send messages to adults that it is dangerous—to youth and to the broader community—to allow young people unsupervised access to guns.

A few communities have experimented with antiviolence initiatives that provide safe places for children to study and play, focus on community revitalization, and feature public awareness campaigns against gun violence.52 In addition, the article by Fagan describes law enforcement-oriented approaches to community gun violence prevention. In Boston, for example, a coalition of African American ministers joined forces with police to send a forceful message—targeted at young gang members—that gun violence would not be tolerated in the community. Approaches like these have not been evaluated extensively, but they may hold promise for changing youth attitudes toward guns, empowering communities, and ultimately reducing youth gun violence.

Engaging youth themselves as agents for change in their neighborhoods also may be a promising strategy for reducing gun violence, and is being tried in some communities.73 For example, one program, Youth ALIVE! in Oakland, California, employs young people who were formerly involved in gun violence to work as mentors to youth who have been injured by guns.74 Programs such as these try to help youth create norms against gun carrying and gun violence in their communities.


Federal, state, and local policymakers should develop and evaluate comprehensive, community-based initiatives to reduce youth gun violence—partnering with schools, faith communities, community service programs, parents, and young people.