Predicting When Young Men Carry Guns

Predicting When Young Men Carry Guns

Black and White males who deal drugs and affiliate with delinquent peers are more likely to carry a gun. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 43, No. 2, 144-155

Distinguishing Between-Individual From Within-Individual Predictors of Gun Carrying Among Black and White Males Across Adolescence


Meagan Docherty, Arizona State University
Jordan Beardslee, Arizona State University
Kevin J. Grimm, Arizona State University
Dustin Pardini, Arizona State University


Longitudinal studies have found that male adolescents who deal drugs, associate with delinquent peers, and engage in aggressive behavior are at increased risk for carrying a gun (between-individual risks). However, it is unclear whether changes in these risk factors help to explain fluctuations in youth gun carrying across adolescence (within-individual risks). The current study examined this issue using a community sample of 970 adolescent males (58% Black, 42% White) assessed annually from ages 14 to 18. Multilevel models examined the extent to which between-individual differences and within-individual changes in drug dealing, peer delinquency, aggressive behavior, and neighborhood disadvantage were associated with gun carrying across adolescence. Each of these predictors, except for disadvantage, exerted a between-individual and within-individual influence for Black youth. For White youth, drug dealing was significant on both levels, peer delinquency was a significant between-individual predictor, and aggression was a significant within-individual predictor. Neighborhood disadvantage did not significantly predict gun carrying in the model, on either the between- or within-individual level, for Black or White youth. These results stress the importance of examining race-specific predictors of gun carrying among Black and White adolescents and point to drug dealing as a robust predictor of gun carrying, at both the between-individual and within individual levels for youth of either race. Efforts to prevent drug market involvement and reduce aggressive behaviors in adolescence may in turn prove useful for preventing firearm violence.


gun carrying, firearms, drug dealing, adolescence, multilevel models

Summary of the Research

“Gun violence is a serious public health issue, particularly among Black adolescent males living in impoverished communities within the United States. Given the significant emotional and financial costs of gun violence, it is important to better understand what time-stable factors place adolescent males at a relatively higher risk for gun carrying in general, as well as determine the changing life circumstances that may drive youth to carry guns at different points during adolescence. Previous research has already characterized many between-individual characteristics that distinguish youth who are at high risk for gun carrying. However, we have yet to identify the dynamic factors within an adolescent’s life that increase their likelihood of carrying a firearm, which is critical for identifying potential causal factors and creating interventions designed to keep known gun carriers from continuing to engage in this dangerous behavior” (p. 144).

“In this study, we found that drug dealing was a significant between- and within-individual risk factor for both Black and White youth and had a stronger effect size than other predictors in the model, indicating a robust association between drug dealing and gun carrying. In addition, peer delinquency operated as a between-individual risk factor and aggression was a within individual risk factor for both races. These findings are important because they suggest that although aggression can explain between-individual differences in gun carrying (i.e., because youth with an antisocial predisposition might be more aggressive and also more likely to carry a gun), fluctuations in aggression over time can also explain why youth choose to carry guns at some times and not at others. Although neighborhood disadvantage was not significantly associated with gun carrying and did not interact with the other predictors, including the disadvantage interactions in the model did impact interactions with race, such that within individual changes in peer delinquency and aggression were no longer significantly different for Black and White youth” (p. 152).

“Consistent with prior research, between-individual differences in drug dealing and peer delinquency were significantly associated with differences in gun carrying across race and levels of disadvantage. Youth who are more likely to deal drugs and interact with delinquent peers may be more inclined to carry a gun, as these are manifestations of an overall antisocial lifestyle. Interestingly, aggression only operated as a between-individual risk factor for gun carrying among Black youth, and drug dealing was a stronger between-individual risk factor for gun carrying among Black youth, although peer delinquency was a stronger between individual risk factor for gun carrying among White youth. Therefore, it could be that aggression and drug dealing are stronger markers of antisocial propensity among Black youth, although peer delinquency is more indicative of antisocial propensity among White youth. These interactions remained significant, even when including interactions with neighborhood disadvantage. These risk factors help to inform which youth might benefit most from gun violence prevention programs” (p. 152).

“Importantly, within-individual changes in drug dealing and aggression were associated with increased risk for gun carrying for both White and Black youth. When youth are selling drugs or acting more aggressively, they may be more likely to carry a gun (e.g., to defend their turf or supply, to threaten others) compared with times when they are not engaged in these behaviors. However, peer delinquency only operated as a within-individual risk factor among Black youth, not White youth. It could be that the mechanism underlying the association between peer delinquency and gun carrying operates differently for Black and White youth—for example, carrying a gun may confer more status onto Black youth among their delinquent peers than it does for White youth. Or it could be that peer delinquency is qualitatively different for White and Black youth—Black youth might be more likely to be involved in formal gang networks, or Black youths’ delinquent peer networks might be embedded in neighborhoods with greater levels of disadvantage and violence and lower social control” (p. 152).

Translating Research into Practice

“The within-person findings from multilevel models suggest that interventions that target risk factors for gun violence may be effective, as these predictors were associated with gun carrying at the same age. Efforts to reduce contacts with delinquent peers or build resistance to peer influence may have a strong impact on reducing gun violence among Black youth, whereas efforts to reduce aggression may have a strong impact on reducing gun violence among White youth, and efforts reducing drug dealing should be effective among both Black and White youth, according to the within-individual influences of these risk factors. These findings also support the crime facilitation and weapons effect theories. When Black youth interact with delinquent peers, and when either Black or White youth engage in drug dealing or aggressive behavior, they are more likely to carry a gun to facilitate risky behavior and possibly self-protection. Future research can work on untangling the temporal order of these behaviors to determine whether gun carrying occurs before (weapons effect) or after (crime facilitation) the other risk factors” (p. 152-153).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“These findings are in line with studies showing that in multilevel models the Level 1 and Level 2 effects are not equivalent and can even contradict each other. They are also in line with the differential sensitivity model of race differences, in which risk factors can have differential associations with outcomes depending on race. Indeed, all of the risk factors were significant at both the between- and within-individual levels for Black youth, which was not the case for White youth, suggesting that Black youth may be differentially susceptible to gun carrying while engaging in these other behaviors. Importantly, there was no longer a significant main effect of race in the model that included interaction terms, suggesting that race differences in gun carrying may only appear among individuals who deal drugs, at average levels of the covariates. Unfortunately, we were not able to test whether neighborhood disadvantage operates similarly for White and Black youth, due to limited overlap in disadvantage between the two groups. Although this was the first study to our knowledge to demonstrate within-individual effects for drug dealing and aggression on gun carrying, results replicate prior work showing that changes in peer delinquency are associated with changes in gun carrying, and that changes in drug dealing and peer delinquency are associated with violent behaviors” (p. 152).

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As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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