A new study published by researchers in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development details how the number of adolescents who carry guns increased significantly between 2002 and 2019.
“I think it’s a centrally important issue,” said Rebekah Levine Coley, a professor in the department of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology and a researcher on the report. “It’s a public health issue and a safety issue in our society.”
While the study, released on April 26, found the rate of adolescents carrying guns increased 41 percent over all cohorts of sampled youth, it reported the highest increase in white, rural, and higher-income adolescents.
Among Black, American Indian, Alaska Native, and lower-income adolescents, rates decreased over the 17-year time frame.
Naoka Carey, a Ph.D. candidate in applied developmental and educational psychology at BC, worked alongside Coley with a team that drew from samples of adolescents aged 12 to 17 across the United States collected by the National Survey on Drug Use & Health.
Carey and Coley’s data was published in the April edition of Pediatrics, a research journal produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We submitted it to Pediatrics because we think it’s really important for pediatricians to not assume that any of the kids they see are likely to carry or not to carry.” Carey said. “They should be thinking about how to educate teenagers and their families about gun safety regardless.”
Since health care professionals and policymakers rely on gun carriage data for patient treatment and deciding policy, Carey said their research team wanted to collect up-to-date statistics for these individuals along with parents and guardians.
“[Parents] really need to be thinking about being safe if they are going to be gun owners and they have a gun in the home,” Carey said.
Before Carey and Coley’s research, the majority of gun safety data was published in the 1990s. The ’90s, however, witnessed historic peaks in U.S. crime rates, Carey said.
“Crime rates have really declined since the ’90s, and that may be that young people are living in communities with less crime and they feel less need to carry, but that’s just a theory at this point,” Carey said. “It really needs to be tested.”
Carey and Coley’s research does not include data after 2019—and therefore does not account for the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on gun carriage rates.
Since the initial spike of the pandemic, Carey said there have been increases in gun purchases and issued licenses that she hopes to learn more about, especially coupled with the rising societal mental health crisis.
“[The increase in gun purchases, gun licenses, and societal mental health problems]are really concerning, and we’d like to follow up and see what happens once we include some pandemic-era data,” Carey said.
Carey and Coley said that more research is also needed to test theories surrounding the differences in the rates of gun carriage among different groups of adolescents.
“The race, income, and the urbanicity differences were all quite surprising,” Coley said. “The other thing that has gotten a little bit less attention is that growth in girls’ carriage was stronger than the growth in male carriage.”
Male adolescents are about four times more likely to carry a gun than females adolescents, but the rates of female adolescents carrying guns have increased more rapidly over time, according to Coley.
“I think our results counteract a lot of the perceptions about gun carriage [like] that it’s more prevalent among youth of color, and that may have been the case in the past, but that’s no longer the case,” said Coley. “Those prevalence rates have really switched.”
Coley explained that gun carriage rates are linked to higher rates of homicide, suicide, and accidental injuries caused by guns. Studying this trend, she said, is important for promoting the safety of adolescents.
“It’s a major public health concern and the more children that are carrying guns, the more harm will come to them,” Coley said. “So it’s a concern for parents, teachers, health providers, and, I think, everyone in society.”