Perceived police bias, community violence amplify youth firearm carriage, U-M study shows

Results show that 14% of participants carried a firearm within the past 90 days, mostly for protection

December 15, 2021
Written By:
Alex Piazza

Nearly two-thirds of all violence-related deaths among adolescents and young adults across the United States are caused by firearms.

In an effort to reduce firearm injuries and deaths, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan are partnering with hospitals and communities to better understand what motivates young people to carry firearms.

A new study led by Patrick Carter, co-director of the U-M Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, demonstrates a strong correlation between firearm carriage, youth perceptions of police bias and community violence exposure.

Study findings, published this week in the international scholarly journal Preventive Medicine, reveal that youth are more likely to carry a firearm if they have been exposed to a higher level of community violence. This association was found to be even stronger if the individual does not trust the police to protect them against such violence.

“Youth tell us they carry firearms primarily as a means to protect themselves when they live in neighborhoods with higher levels of violence,” said Carter, associate professor of emergency medicine. “What this analysis adds to the picture is that the likelihood youth will carry a firearm to protect themselves from violence is higher when they also distrust the police and feel they are more likely to be victimized rather than protected during police encounters.

“These findings suggest that, in addition to other ongoing work focused on addressing violence prevention, we also need to address this distrust that exists between police and the youth in their communities if we want to reduce firearm violence.”

This study is one of many community engagement projects being led by the institute, which launched last summer as part of a $10 million university commitment to generate new knowledge and advance innovative solutions to reduce firearm injury, while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to legally own firearms.

With support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a team led by Carter surveyed more than 1,300 individuals, ages 16-29 years old, who presented for emergency department treatment to Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan. The city of Flint has a history of severe racial segregation and is experiencing escalating crises of youth firearm violence and homicide.

As part of their study, researchers asked youths how many times they had carried a firearm within the past three months. They also asked participants about their exposure to violence in the community, as well as their perceptions of police bias.

Their survey results showed that 14% of participants had carried a firearm within the past 90 days. And among those individuals who affirmed recent firearm carriage, 71% stated their primary motivation for carrying or owning a gun was to protect themselves, their family or their friends.

The association between community violence exposure and firearm carriage increased when study participants cited higher levels of cynicism toward law enforcement, with some individuals perceiving police as unresponsive and ill-equipped to ensure public safety.

“What this research tells us is that ongoing efforts to improve the current relationship that exists between police and youth within their community could play an important role when it comes to reducing firearm carriage and violence,” said Rebeccah Sokol, assistant professor of social work at Wayne State University, who was previously a postdoctoral fellow at U-M with the study team and was lead author of this publication.