Racial Disparities in Exposure to Gun Violence in the US

Category Science

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A new study reveals the racial disparities in exposure to gun violence in the US, with Black and Hispanic communities facing higher rates of victimization. The study also uncovered data about gender and birth year related to these disparities.

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A new study reveals the significant racial disparities in exposure to gun violence in the US, with Black and Hispanic communities facing higher rates of direct victimization and witnessing shootings. The research highlights the long-lasting effects of gun violence on individuals and communities, emphasizing the importance of addressing this issue.

Exposure to gun violence is one of the great traumas of American life, but its harms are not equally distributed. In a first-of-its-kind study published on May 9 in JAMA Network Open, a Harvard sociology professor and his colleagues set out to examine exposure to shootings by race, sex, and birth year in a long-term study that followed respondents from childhood up to age 40.

The average US homicide rate is 5.2 deaths per 100,000 people.

"The idea here is to take a life-course perspective," said Robert J. Sampson, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor. "When is exposure to gun violence happening? How does that change over the life course? And how do those patterns vary by race, sex, and all the societal changes that are happening?" .

These questions were tackled by analyzing longitudinal data on a representative sample of 2,418 participants from Chicago — half male and half female — who were born in 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1996. Four rounds of data were collected for up to 25 years. All in all, responses underscore the profound tolls on Black and Hispanic communities while surfacing new insights related to gender and birth year.

US gun violence rates are more than 25 times higher compared to other high-income countries.

Making this study possible was the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which Sampson helped launch in the mid-1990s to follow various birth cohorts. "One of the project’s advantages is the ability to disentangle age and life-course differences from what’s happening in society at large," Sampson said. By now, the social scientist has drawn on PHDCN data for multiple papers and a book, with a forthcoming title arriving next year on the interaction of child and societal development.

More than two-thirds of all gun deaths in the US are suicides, according to the Giffords Law Center.

For this study, Sampson and his co-authors found exposure to gun violence varied depending on when the respondent was born. Overall, exposure rises in adolescence, with 14 being the mean age of seeing somebody shot while 17 was the mean for being shot. "The oldest cohorts were quite disadvantaged," Sampson noted, "because they came of age during the peak of violence in the United States and Chicago." U.S. homicide rates topped out in the early 1990s, just as those born in the early ’80s reached their teen years. Around half of respondents born in 1981 and 1984 reported witnessing gun violence, while those who had been shot hovered around 7 percent.

In 2020, African American and Hispanic people accounted for 51% of all firearm homicide victims.

As crime rates declined, subsequent birth cohorts faced less exposure to firearms. Those born in 1996 reported the lowest levels of seeing somebody shot – their exposure was half that of the two oldest cohorts – but direct victimization was another story. "Surprisingly," Sampson added, "unlike witnessing violence, there was no statistical difference between the 1981 and 1996 cohorts in their risk of being shot." .

About 837,000 children in the US live in a household with an unlocked and loaded gun.

"In 2015 or 2016, violence in the United States, but particularly in Chicago, started to skyrocket," explained Sampson, who noted that gun-related deaths peaked in 2021 – with nearly all homicides today being gun homicides. "As being shot tends to happen later in the life course, the youngest cohort should have been the most vulnerable from a direct victimization perspective." And, indeed, the study found that the 1996 cohort was at greatest risk: 13 percent of respondents born that year experienced being shot — a figure that the authors called "alarming." .

In 1992, persons aged 18-24 accounted for 39% of all gun homicide victims.

Nevertheless, disparities persisted across demographic lines. The authors found that those of Hispanic ethnicity were about twice as likely to witness gun violence, and three times as likely to be shot than those of non-Hispanic white ethnicity. Moreover, African Americans had triple the risk of being shot and double the risk of witnessing a shooting as those of non-Hispanic white ethnicity. The authors identified these as “surprisingly large and consistent differences” that correspond to "the disproportionate burden of victimization borne by African-American and Hispanic residents in the United States.” .

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