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Fewer Teens Are Carrying Guns Than Ever

But a new study shows that handgun carrying is rising among white adolescents in the United States.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Firearm homicide rates are nearly 20 times higher in the United States than other high-income countries, and the annual costs of gun violence top $100 billion by some estimates. But in one of the largest studies of gun carrying behavior in the U.S. to date, researchers have found that historically low numbers of adolescents are carrying weapons today. Rates of handgun carrying among white Americans, however, are rising.

In the new study, researchers used data collected between 2002 and 2013 from nearly 200,000 American adolescents as part of the National Study on Drug Use and Health. The study surveyed 12- to 17-year-olds about their handgun carrying behavior, drug use, delinquency, risk-taking, and family life.

It came as no surprise that young males with a history of delinquent and risk-taking behavior were more likely than most to carry guns. But some interesting patterns emerged when the team broke down the data by race and ethnicity. White males from high-income homes, for example, were more likely to carry handguns than their low-income peers. And while handgun carrying among blacks and Hispanics has dropped or held steady since 2002, it significantly increased among whites over the last two years of the study period.

White males from high-income homes were more likely to carry handguns.

The overall prevalence of handgun carrying over the study period, however, was low — only 3.4 percent — which means fewer than one million 12- to 17- year-olds in the U.S. would report carrying handguns.

“In the general public you get this idea that things are getting worse all the time,” says Saint Louis University’s Michael Vaughn, a lead author on the study. “It’s definitely not the case that problem behavior by youth, including handgun carrying, is increasing across the board with each decade. In fact, if anything, it’s the other way around.”

The nature of the survey data makes it hard to say what’s driving these gun-carrying trends, and, Vaughn cautions, it’s unclear if the short-term trends revealed here are actual trends or meaningless fluctuations in the data. Will carrying rates continue to climb among whites and fall for blacks and Hispanics? Only time will tell.

But another study published recently by Vaughn and his colleagues sheds more light on the sort of kids who choose to carry guns. It turns out that carriers don’t fit neatly into a single sub-group. Roughly half of them are low-risk gun carriers; they don’t engage in other forms of risky behaviors like drug-use and theft. Then there are moderate-risk carriers: twenty percent who are also into drugs and alcohol, and another 20 percent who frequently get into fights. Finally, there’s the 12 percent of carriers with a propensity for violence, substance use, and general delinquency, who are thus at high-risk for gun violence.

“That’s really the important take home: Not all kids who carry handguns are the same,” Vaughn says. But that information, he says, can be used to create public-health interventions for gun violence tailored to those who need it most.