As much as I have enjoyed my recent foray into recreational gun culture (hunting, target/sport shooting, and collecting), I am returning from my hiatus from thinking about guns in connection with violence because we are discussing violence in my Sociology of Guns seminar now.
As I wrote previously, following James Wright, “most of the gun violence problem results from the wrong kinds of people carrying guns at the wrong time and place” (“Ten Essential Observations on Guns in America,” p. 66). Understanding why these people – let’s just call them “bad guys” for short — carry guns could help us to figure out ways to get them to stop and thereby mitigate the harmful effects of such violence.
Many people, Wright included, have found that bad guys carry guns for the same reasons that good guys carry guns: for protection. Insofar as the bad guys live in much more violent worlds than good guys, their defensive motivation for carrying guns is presumably that much stronger. If a suburban concealed carry “operator” or “warrior” dials .357 rather than 911, what must a poor, inner-city youth think about the value of relying on the police rather than himself as a first line of defense?
However, unlike good guys, bad guys also contribute to the violent milieus in which they live. They are not innocent victims of crime, but are also perpetrators of crime. They carry guns to protect themselves because they do things that require protection.
The idea that there are two distinct groups in areas of concentrated violence – victims and offenders – has been questioned since the 1980s. And many believe that most of the gun violence problem actually exists within this overlapping group of victim-offenders. Andrew Papachristos’s work on networks of offending and victimization risk supports this interpretation. Hence the sadly popular idea among some that we should just build a fence around high crime neighborhoods and let “them” shoot it out.
Unfortunately, just asking individuals why they carry guns doesn’t allow us to understand the complexity of offensive gun carrying vs. defensive gun carrying vs. offensive and defensive gun carrying.
Enter a very interesting study by Richard Spano and John Bolland published in 2013 in the journal Crime & Delinquency, “Disentangling the Effects of Violent Victimization, Violent Behavior, and Gun Carrying for Minority Inner-City Youth Living in Extreme Poverty.”
Spano and Bolland used data from the Mobile Youth Survey, a series of surveys of high poverty (mostly African American) youth living in Mobile, Alabama, to understand victimization and offending as predictors of initiating gun carry. Significantly, they have data on the same individuals at two points in time, so they can distinguish those who did not carry a gun at Time 1 (T1) but did carry a gun at Time 2 (T2). They also have data on whether the respondent engaged in violent behavior and/or was a victim of violent behavior at T1 so they can use those as independent variables to predict the likelihood of initiating gun carrying at T2 (statistically controlling for other factors such as family structure, gender, and gang membership).
From T1 to T2, 8% of the youth in the survey initiated gun carrying – 83 of 995 respondents.
Two figures highlight interesting descriptive findings. Figure 1 shows that a slight majority of respondents were NEITHER victims nor offenders at T1 (52.4%). The second largest group of respondents (31.2%) were only offenders at and the smallest group (4.9%) were only victims at T1. A relatively small group (11.6%) were in the overlapping group of those who are both victims and offenders.
These data suggest that a remarkable number of youth in this community engage in violent behavior (42.8%), but also that a small majority manage to avoid violence as victims and offenders. It certainly doesn’t suggest the propriety of building a wall and letting them fight it out.
Figure 2 then looks at these same groups of victims and/or offenders in terms of the proportion of each group that initiated gun carrying at T2. The highest proportion of new gun carriers come from the overlapping group (19%) and the second highest come from the victim only group (16%). These groups were 3 to 4 times more likely to initiate gun carrying than those who were neither victims nor perpetrators of violence (5% initiated gun carry). In the middle were those who only engaged in violent behavior at T1 (9%).
So, compared to those with no exposure to violence either as victims or perpetrators, victimization does seem to motivate gun carrying. This finding holds true in multivariate statistical anlayses conducted by Spano and Bolland (Table 3, Model 1 in their paper).
The point of comparison matters, however. Spano and Bolland also found that compared to those who only engaged in violent behavior at T1, those who were victimized (either only victims or in the overlapping group of victim-offenders) were no more likely to initiate gun carrying (Table 3, Model 2). That is, there was no statistically significant difference in initiating gun carrying for offensive versus defensive purposes once other factors were held constant statistically.
Both of these findings suggest that, although retrospective accounts of why bad guys carry guns can tell us something, they don’t tell us the whole story of the complex motivations for gun carrying.
Also of note is the fact that in the multivariate analyses, being a gang member at T1 is the strongest predictor of initiating gun carry at T2. 3% of respondents were gang members, and they were 300%+ more likely than non-gang members to initiate gun carrying, ceteris paribus. Being male is also a consistent and strong predictor of gun carry compared to being female.
The only measured factor that reduces the likelihood of initiating gun carry at T2 is having a two parent (or parent equivalent) family structure at T1. This reduced the likelihood of gun carrying by 50% compared to not having such a family structure.