January 31, 2017 / 11:36 PM / 2 years ago

Exposure to violence tied to risk of teen gun possession

(Reuters Health) - Adolescents with criminal records may be more likely to carry guns if they have witnessed or experienced violence, a U.S. study suggests.

Plenty of previous research has linked gun use among young people to the availability and visibility of weapons in their homes and communities. The current study focused on teen boys found guilty of serious crimes and found every exposure to violence was associated with 43 to 87 percent higher odds that these young men would carry guns.

“Experiencing trauma, whether by witnessing drive-by shootings in the neighborhood or a school classmate being shot, impacts every sphere of an adolescent’s life - invalidating expectations of finding safety in the world and shattering optimistic beliefs about the future,” said lead study author Joan Reid, a criminology researcher at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

“Repeated exposure to violence gradually desensitizes adolescents to the risks and they become numb to the dangerous reality,” Reid added by email. “Paradoxically, gun carrying makes them feel safer while actually increasing their likelihood of an early death.”

For the current study, researchers surveyed 1,170 young men ages 14 to 19 who had been found guilty of a serious criminal offense in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Phoenix, Arizona.

After the initial survey, researchers assessed participants at four and six month intervals between 2000 and 2003 to see how often they carried guns, experienced psychological distress or were exposed to violence.

Most of the teens were around 14 years old at the time of their first arrest, and roughly half of them had carried guns at least once.

Witnessing violence was associated with 43 to 59 percent higher odds of gun carrying, researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Experiencing violence was tied to 63 to 87 percent higher odds of gun carrying.

The findings in teen boys may not apply to teen girls, the authors note. It’s also possible that other factors may have influenced gun carrying, particularly because so many of the boys in the study had handled weapons prior to joining the trial.

For parents trying to prevent violence exposure and gun use, there aren’t a lot of easy answers, said Deanna Wilkinson, a researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus who wasn’t involved in the study.

Surrounding children with positive adult role models, and getting to know their friends and the families of their friends can help, Wilkinson said. So can reading to kids from birth and trying to keep teens focused on education.

But these efforts may still not be enough to overcome the stress and exposure to trauma that happens when children grow up in a violent community.

“Move out of the most dangerous neighborhoods or schools if at all possible” Wilkinson said. “Do not enable your child to slide into gray or black market hustles even if poverty is a problem.”

In reality, this often isn’t possible.

“Because serious crime and economic distress are so tightly linked, it is very difficult for parents to entirely eliminate the risk that their children will be exposed to violence, experience psychological distress, or even carry guns,” said Alex Piquero, a researcher at the University of Texas in Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Parents need to do the best job they can at raising their kids to be good students, respect the law, and stay away from the fray, so to speak,” Piquero added by email. “At the same time, local officials and city leaders must continue to do all they can to help bolster distressed communities by developing meaningful employment opportunities and establishing top-performing educational institutions.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/2knKDnf Annals of Internal Medicine, online January 30, 2017.

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