Study says teen gun use has "spiked," but there's a catch

Study says teen gun use has "spiked," but there's a catch
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

An alarming new study claims that the number of teens toting guns around has spiked dramatically in the past few years; up 41% between 2002 and 2019. Researchers at Boston University say that their data, taken from the National Survey on Drug Use & Health, shows that who is carrying a gun has changed over time as well, with higher-income and white teenagers becoming more likely to do so, while black, Native American, and low-income teens becoming less likely to carry.

The study’s authors are already using their work to call for action.

The study’s results come on the heels of a separate study by researchers from the University of Michigan who found for the first time in more than a decade, guns were the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in 2020. More than 4,300 adolescents died of firearm-related injuries that year.

“Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. and it is absolutely critical that we address it,” said Naoka Carey, a doctoral candidate at Boston College and a co-author of the study.

“To do that, policy needs to be informed by what teenagers are reporting they do today, not what they were doing 20 years ago or class- or race-based assumptions about which kids carry. We hope that our study can help inform future research, and help policymakers better address the root causes of violence and childhood injury, which may look different for different communities.”

I absolutely agree that policy needs to be informed by data, and current data is generally going to be more helpful than statistics that are decades old.

However, it’s equally important to look at as much data as possible and not simply highlight the figures that are most alarming, which is what the authors appear to be doing here. A deeper dive into the survey’s findings reveal that while the number of teens self-reporting that they’ve carried guns has indeed gone up over the past 20 years, the overall numbers are still very low.

Handgun carriage increased significantly, particularly among rural, White, and higher-income adolescents. Carriage increased by 41% over cohorts, with predicted prevalence rates increasing from 3.3% in 2002–2006 to 4.6% in 2015–2019. Across cohorts, rural (5.1%), American Indian/Alaskan Native (5.2%), lower-income (<$20 000; 3.9%), male (5.9%), and older (16–17 years old; 4.5%) adolescents were the most likely to report carriage. However, these patterns changed significantly over time, with White and higher-income adolescents (>$75 000) most likely to carry in the most recent cohorts. Predicted carriage rates increased from 3.1% to 5.3% among White adolescents, from 2.6% to 5.1% among higher-income adolescents, and from 4.3% to 6.9% among rural adolescents between the 2002–2006 and 2015–2019 cohorts. Carriage among Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and lower-income adolescents decreased.

A “41% increase in teens carrying guns” sounds far more alarming than “4.6% of teens admitted to carrying a gun at least occasionally”, but both figures come directly from the study itself. It’s just that the authors and the mainstream media are going to run with the 41% increase while downplaying or outright ignoring the fact that about 95% of teenagers say they’re not carrying a gun around.

This isn’t a widespread issue, and to be frank, the study’s findings run counter to some of the other data out there. According to the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Division, juvenile arrests for weapons possession declined by 49% between 2010 and 2019, which covers the same time period that the study’s authors say the number of teens carrying guns was sharply increasing. Arrests aren’t a perfect correlation to the number of teens actually carrying, but if there were more adolescents carrying guns around you would think that the number of arrests would have ticked up, as opposed to seeing the nearly 50% reduction that actually happened.

There’s one other data point I found that’s worth mentioning. According to the authors of this new study, 4.5% of 16-and-17-year olds say they’ve carried a gun at some point in the recent past. At the same time, another study has found that 5.5% of 17-year olds say they’ve misused prescription opioids over the past year; a number that doesn’t include non-prescription opioids like heroin and fentanyl purchased on the street, which would obviously drive that percentage even higher.

If the new study on teens and firearms is close to accurate, then what we have is a small but growing number of adolescents who have carried a gun in the past year, and a much smaller subset of that population who’ve actually used a gun in the commission of a violent crime. Broad, sweeping laws aimed at legal adult gun owners isn’t likely to have an impact on those teens in question, but you can rest assured that the response to this study from anti-gun groups will be to call for further infringements on our right to keep and bear arms.