MONDAY, July 8, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Many violent young people carry guns, a new study shows.
The research, published online July 8 and in the August print issue of Pediatrics, surveyed nearly 700 teens and young adults aged 14 to 24 who were treated in a hospital emergency department for injuries related to violent assaults.
Nearly one in four said they'd had a gun in the past six months. Eighty-three percent of those with guns admitted they'd obtained them illegally. And nearly one in five who had guns said they carried a semi-automatic or assault-style weapon.
Boys involved in assaults were nearly three times more likely to report having a gun than girls. Having a history of violent fights, using illegal drugs or endorsing the idea of revenge increased the odds that a young person would have a gun. Gang membership was also a factor; slightly more than 9 percent of those with guns said they belonged to a gang while only 1 percent of those with guns said they did not belong to a gang.
"This is a public health crisis," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an attending physician in the department of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Homicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24. It is the leading cause of death for blacks, according to background information in the study. And guns cause the vast majority of those homicides.
"It's an epidemic that needs to be addressed. We need to place significant emphasis on this, as we do on other public health issues," Glatter said.
Because the study is a snapshot in time, it can't prove which came first, having a gun or engaging in violent behavior. The study also can't prove that simply having a gun leads to violence.
But researchers say their findings point to several possible ways to reduce the toll gun violence takes on young people.
Community-wide programs to get illegal firearms off the street could play a key role, as could youth programs that work to change attitudes about getting revenge after a perceived slight.
The second would be a more personal intervention directed at young people who wind up in the ER with injuries from a recent fight.
"People talk about finding a teachable moment," said study author Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency room physician at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mich. "These kids are in the ER. They're there for an injury. It may be a time when they're more reflective about their role in violence and substance abuse, and they may be more willing to receive an intervention," he said.
Noting that many who possessed firearms obtained them from friends and family, the author of an accompanying journal editorial said the findings support current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The academy recommends no guns be allowed in the home. If that is not possible, any gun should be stored unloaded and locked, and ammunition should be locked separately.
Other findings from the survey:
- Blacks were slightly less likely to possess guns than whites, as were those who received public assistance, which was an indicator of lower socioeconomic status.
- Thirty-seven percent said they had a gun mainly for protection, and a majority believed it was "OK to hurt people if they hurt you first."
- Almost 10 percent with guns said they carried one because their "friends carry guns."
- More than half of those surveyed reported they could obtain a gun easily.
- Fifteen percent of those with guns were younger than 18 and about one-third have children.
For more on gun violence in the United States, visit the National Institute of Justice.