A fatal high school shooting in October near Seattle reignited a long-running national debate about gun safety, mental illness and minors. An important major study, published Nov. 5 by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center and TC, contributes new insights to the discussion, including the finding that “multiple risk behaviors, beyond more commonly discussed indicators of poor mental health…are associated with gun possession among youth.”
The study’s authors are Kelly V. Ruggles, Research Scientist with the Department of Population Health and the Center for Health Informatics and Bioinformatics at NYU Langone Medical Center; and Sonali Rajan, Assistant Professor of Health Education at Teachers College.
Ruggles and Rajan identified more than 40 different behavioral factors other than mental illness that are strongly associated with gun possession. These include heroin use, substance use on school property, having been injured in a fight, and having been a victim of sexual violence.
The study uncovered this new information by applying the latest computational methodologies to nationally representative data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Although these results do not imply causality, these computational methods allowed us to approach this complex social issue without bias to better understand risk factors that are likely to simultaneously occur,” the researchers write. “It is our hope that this study will help shift the rhetoric around gun violence, identify potential points of intervention, and help reframe research priorities. We believe that this study will provide a meaningful contribution towards addressing the gun violence solution in the United States.”
To define “gun possession,” the researchers used data culled from the answers of high school-age respondents who were asked whether they had carried a gun in the last 30 days. The gun could have been obtained through various means, including taking one from their home that had been legally purchased by an adult, or illegally purchasing a firearm.
Previous research confirms that stricter gun control efforts are effective in curbing gun violence and substantially reducing the number of firearm-related injuries and deaths. However, as the authors note: “implementing effective gun control-related policy changes are complex and politically difficult to legislate in the short term.” Thus, this study focused not on the means by which guns were obtained but rather the prevalence of and behavioral factors associated with gun possession among American youth.
This work has become particularly important in recent years given that researchers who want to study gun violence have been hindered in part by the moratorium on federal funding for gun violence prevention research, which was first imposed by Congress in 1996. This study adds significant knowledge to the field in regard to better identifying and understanding the behavioral components associated with gun possession, in particular those factors that may increase the likelihood of gun possession among children and adolescents.
The study, “Gun Possession among American Youth: A Discovery-Based Approach to Understanding Gun Violence,” is also significant because of its breadth and sample size. Ruggles and Rajan used nationally representative data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Taking 5 million unique data points over a 10-year period (2001 to 2011), they looked at 55 risk behaviors, assessed which behaviors are likely to occur together, and calculated which combinations were more likely to occur with gun possession.
The research suggests more work is needed to find clues for where to target future prevention efforts, they write in their study, which was published in PLOS ONE.
Gun Possession among American Youth: A Discovery-Based Approach to Understand Gun Violence
Our study uncovered the multidimensional nature of gun possession across nearly five million unique data points over a ten year period (2001–2011). Specifically, we automated odds ratio calculations for 55 risk behaviors to assemble a comprehensive table of associations for every behavior combination. Downstream analyses included the hierarchical clustering of risk behaviors based on their association “fingerprint” to 1) visualize and assess which behaviors frequently co-occur and 2) evaluate which risk behaviors are consistently found to be associated with gun possession. From these analyses, we identified more than 40 behavioral factors, including heroin use, using snuff on school property, having been injured in a fight, and having been a victim of sexual violence, that have and continue to be strongly associated with gun possession. Additionally, we identified six behavioral clusters based on association similarities: 1) physical activity and nutrition; 2) disordered eating, suicide and sexual violence; 3) weapon carrying and physical safety; 4) alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use; 5) drug use on school property and 6) overall drug use.
“Gun Possession among American Youth: A Discovery-Based Approach to Understand Gun Violence” by Kelly V. Ruggles and Sonali Rajan in PLOS ONE. Published online November 5 2014 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111893.