Over the past two decades, amid heated debates about gun control, the number of teenagers nationwide who acknowledge carrying a handgun has jumped significantly, report Boston researchers in a new study.
But it’s not just that tens of thousands more youngsters are accessing handguns. The profile of gun-carrying teens has also measurably changed, the researchers found, suggesting that firearm safety and advocacy initiatives may also need to be updated.
“It’s really important for people to not assume they know what kind of kids carry guns, and that goes for pediatricians and public health workers,” said Naoka Carey, a doctoral student in Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development and a coauthor of the study. “You need to be educating families and young people about the risks for carrying a gun, whether they come from a low-income or high-income family.”
The study from Boston College, published Tuesday in the Journal of Pediatrics, found the number of young people, ages 12 to 17, who reported they’d carried a handgun in the prior year increased by 41 percent from 2002 to 2019.
By 2019, roughly 4.5 percent of children in that age group said they had recently carried a handgun.
Yet, the increases among certain racial and income groups most surprised the researchers. They found the sharpest rise among white teens and those in families with the highest annual incomes (those making $75,000 or more). They also found a significant increase among youngsters in rural areas.
“White and higher income youth are now the most likely of the groups to report handgun carriage, and that’s quite different from the pattern 15 to 20 years ago,” Carey said.
Over the past two decades, she said, the picture of a young person most likely to report carrying a handgun has essentially flipped.
Between 2002 and 2006, white and Asian American adolescents were the least likely to say they’d carried a handgun, while Black and Hispanic youth were the most likely. More recently, Black teens have joined Asian Americans as among the least likely. But white youth have joined Hispanic adolescents, as most likely.
The study analyzed data from nearly 300,000 youngsters surveyed annually in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, which queries families in their homes, so it captures young people who may not be in school. The survey also specifically asks only about handguns, to weed out potential answers about hunting rifles or long guns.
The national database the researchers used for their analysis indicates that Massachusetts, with some of the strongest gun regulations in the country, had a steep drop in the percentage of children ages 12-17 reporting they carried a handgun, from 2.2 percent in 2002/2003 to under 1 percent in 2019/2020. Other New England states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, saw steep increases.
The Boston College study comes as firearm deaths replaced auto accidents as the leading killer of children, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Gun safety has become such a political issue it’s not considered a public health issue in the same way motor vehicle crashes are,” said Dr. Lois Lee, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
From 2019 to 2020, the rate of firearm-related deaths of all types (including suicide, homicide, and unintentional) among youth ages 1-19 increased nearly 30 percent — more than double the rate of increase in the general population, another team of researchers concluded in an analysis published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Lee coauthored a companion analysis last week in the New England Journal that traced the decline in child auto accident deaths over the past two decades to aggressive work by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency whose mission is to prevent injuries caused by road-traffic crashes.
But over the same two-decade stretch, Lee’s team found, Congress slashed funding for firearm injury prevention and research, as gun-related issues sparked increasing controversy.
With gun rights such a fraught topic now, Lee said, she and other pediatricians have refocused their approach, steering away from conversations with families that might be perceived as pro- or anti-gun, and instead advising them to store firearms in locked boxes separately from ammunition and out of reach of children.
“It’s not about taking away gun rights,” Lee said. “Just like we live with cars and swimming pools; it’s what can we do to reduce the risk of harm.”
The Boston College researchers did not study the reasons for the increase in kids carrying handguns, or why certain groups are more prone to report carrying them today than others.
But pediatricians and other gun safety advocates said research indicates gun ownership tends to rise when people feel they are unsafe, and if adults are buying more guns, that can trickle down to more children getting their hands on them.
”We know that people own guns seeking a sense of safety, but it’s a false feeling of safety because we know that handgun ownership is associated with increased risk of homicide and suicide,” said Greg Parkinson, a Cape Cod pediatrician and co-chair of the injury prevention committee in the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“One of the hidden messages [of the Boston College study) is that while we think about gang violence and neighborhood violence with guns, suicide and domestic violence happen in every neighborhood,” Parkinson said.
Research published last year found a surge in firearms sales in the first months of the pandemic in the US, with an estimated 4.3 million more firearms purchased from March through July 2020 than would have been expected, and a total of 4,075 more firearms injuries in April through July, with a potential link to more domestic violence.
Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said the cascade of data pointing to more kids with guns comes amid other research indicating the pandemic exacerbated mental health problems among adolescents.
“Access to a gun means a mental health crisis can be more lethal,” Zakarin said. “I see all these numbers and immediately get concerned around what that means about keeping young people safe and preventing suicide.”