Cycle of violence: Exposure to nongun violence contributes to perpetration of gun violence

Cycle of violence: Exposure to nongun violence contributes to perpetration of gun violence

Addressing differences in exposure to violence in high risk groups in general and within the life experience of specific, targeted adolescents could both have an impact on reducing involvement in gun violence. 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. 3, 250-262

Proximal Predictors of Gun Violence Among Adolescent Males Involved in Crime


Zachary R. Rowan, Simon Fraser University
Carol A. Schubert, University of Pittsburgh
Thomas A. Loughran, The Pennsylvania State University
Edward P. Mulvey, University of Pittsburgh
Dustin A. Pardini, Arizona State University


The growing public health and legal concerns regarding gun violence has led to a call for research that investigates risk factors for gun violence across a variety of domains. Individual and sociocontextual risk factors have been associated with violence more broadly, and in some instances gun-carrying, however no prior research has investigated the role of these factors in explaining gun violence using longitudinal data. The current study utilized a subsample (N = 161) from the Pathways to Desistance Study, which is a longitudinal sample of serious adolescent offenders to evaluate interindividual and intraindividual differences in relevant risk factors of gun violence. Results suggest that there are a few key proximal individual-level and sociocontextual predictors for gun violence, including witnessing nongun violence, future orientation, and perceived personal rewards to crime. Findings demonstrate the salience of exposure to violence in contributing to gun violence and identify levers of action for public policy.


gun violence, risk factors, adolescent violence

Summary of the Research

“The marked rise in youth violence in the United States during the early 1990s elevated the issue of gun violence as both a public health and criminal justice concern. Although there has been a recent decline in male youth reporting weapon carrying (13.7% to 8.7%) and general declines in overall firearm violence since the 1990s, nearly 36,000 people still die every year because of gun-related violence, with two more persons injured for every person killed. This violence is concentrated in certain locales and groups, with young adults, males, and minorities disproportionately affected. Yet there is a substantial lack of research investigating the precursors and correlates of gun violence. As a result, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council and the American Psychological Association (2013) have called for research designed to identify risk factors for gun violence across multiple domains. To address this void, the current study adopts an ecological approach to understand and predict gun violence as it recognizes the influence of multiple contexts (i.e., individual characteristics, social networks, and the community) in explaining this behavior” (p. 250).

“In general, studies discussing gun violence focus on factors related to gun carrying or factors related to the etiology of violence more broadly. This body of work emphasizes the constellation of individual and sociocontextual risk factors that interact and develop over time to explain violence, as compared to the role of any one specific risk factor. Prior work using the Pathways to Desistance Study has evaluated predictors of homicide and has also adopted a similar ecological model to consider the risk factors of gun carrying. It is notable, however, that there is limited work using longitudinal data to identify and specifically examine risks for gun violence and, importantly, test how the development of risk factors within-individuals predicts gun violence during adolescence and young adulthood. The paucity of research on gun violence is not entirely surprising when one considers the fact that since 1995 Congress stopped federal funding to the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence. Thus, efforts to bypass existing governmental barriers to study gun violence by using publicly available data offer an exciting opportunity to address this void and offer valuable empirically based findings to counteract some prevalent myths currently driving public discourse on this topic” (p. 251).

“The current study evaluates proximal individual and sociocontextual risk factors of firearm use in a longitudinal sample of high-risk adolescents with a history of engaging in serious criminal offenses. In doing so, it contributes to research investigating gun violence in two ways. First, it examines a range of individual and sociocontextual risk factors for gun violence in a highly policy relevant group; serious adolescent offenders at high risk for involvement in harm associated with criminal gun violence. Second, it evaluates whether intraindividual changes in key risk factors increase the likelihood that these adolescents are involved in gun violence. This offers a methodologically rigorous test of how changes risk factors within individuals’ leads to involvement in gun violence. As a result, this study offers insight into the factors that could be most relevant to focus upon as antecedents of gun violence in prevention or intervention efforts with adolescents at increased likelihood to engage in this behavior” (p. 251).

“The only consistent individual-level factor that was significantly associated with gun violence across both modeling strategies was the perceived personal rewards to crime. This suggests that the responsiveness of adolescents to thrills and the social rewards during this developmental period in their lives may be achieved through the use of firearms or associated with situations where gun violence occurs. Of note in the pooled logistic regression model, individuals with higher levels of poor future orientation were significantly more likely to engage in of gun violence. This is supportive of the notion that individuals who are more apt to prioritize the present and discount the future are less likely to consider the serious consequences of gun violence and encounter opportunities where violence is likely to occur. Across both sets of analyses and particularly within the fixed effects estimation strategy, several sociocontextual were significantly associated with a shooting incident. Specifically, a greater proportion of months not gainfully employed or in school, and the frequency of victimization and witnessing of nongun violence were significantly related to the likelihood of engaging in gun violence. These findings reinforce the notion that the environments and situations where adolescents reside or spend time powerfully affect the likelihood that they engage in gun violence, even among adolescents at high risk for involvement in this behavior in the first place. Most consistently, witnessing nongun violence is significantly related to an increase in the likelihood of shooting a gun and was observed to have the largest relative effect in each of the modeling strategies. The relative magnitude of this relationship further suggests that exposure to neighborhoods where violence is pervasively witnessed by adolescents may lead those adolescents to engage in gun violence out of a need for protection, fear of victimization as a way to maintain status or respect, or even in response to psychological distress” (p. 256).

Translating Research into Practice

“These results indicate that higher levels of exposure to nongun violence both across individuals and within-persons are both significantly related to a higher likelihood of gun violence. Thus, addressing differences in exposure to violence in high risk groups in general and within the life experience of specific, targeted adolescents could both have an impact on reducing involvement in gun violence. Importantly, this study looked at exposure to nongun violence specifically, suggesting that it is not necessarily the case that adolescent exposure to gun-specific violence begets the commission of further gun violence. Rather, it implies that exposure to violence broadly precipitates involvement in gun violence; a finding consistent with recent research regarding the precursors of gun carrying” (p. 257).

“The emergence of differential effects of exposure to violence reinforces the need to further understand the mechanisms mediating an exposure experience, carrying a gun, and using one. As prior studies have indicated, some individuals report that obtaining access to a weapon or using a weapon is a protective measure or even as a way to maintain status or respect. The current study emphasizes that certain adolescents move beyond just having the gun for defensive assurance, since the chances of engaging in gun violence in a short time period after an increase in witnessing violence is also heightened. Research should continue to explore the motivations for gun-use carrying and how they translate into harmful behavior” (p. 257).

“It is well-known that there is a “cycle of violence” characterized by exposure to violent victimization or behavior followed by an increased likelihood of engaging in violent behavior. The current study continues to illustrate this cycle; it does so in a particularly extreme—and potentially deadly—pathway toward involvement in gun violence. The potential trauma and psychological realignment possibly accompanying high or increased exposure to nongun violence certainly appears to be worthy of considerable attention in efforts to reduce the prevalence of serious violence within communities (and by default to synergistically reduce opportunities to witness or be a victim of violence) as well as in interventions to reduce the chances of specific adolescents from resorting to gun violence. The fact that exposure to violence is related to both gun carrying and gun violence may reflect a continuum in the development of adolescent violence. As a result, public health and law enforcement efforts to reduce violence in communities might gain considerable traction by addressing the decision-making processes surrounding adolescent involvement with guns” (p. 257).

“The findings from this study also echo the fact that involvement with guns is only one part of an adolescent’s overall involvement with violent offending and victimization. There is clearly a need for investigations into how gun violence is both a byproduct and generator of violent behavior. Ultimately, the current study provides an empirical inquiry into the proximal risks for gun violence by examining these dynamics among a high-risk sample, heeding calls from national organizations to invest in empirical research that can inform policy and intervention efforts at both the individual and community level” (p. 257).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“As with any study, there are several notable limitations. First, involvement in gun violence is relatively rare, even in the Pathways sample of high-risk adolescent offenders. This reality led to the inclusion of a highly selective sample and small sample sizes, limiting our capacity to conduct certain analyses (e.g., assessing effects within youth with and without a mental health problem) and investigation of nuances related to the overall findings (e.g., whether limited variation drives the lack of explanatory power among the individual level factors). Additionally, the measure of gun violence is self-reported and there are obvious reasons why individuals may fail to disclose their involvement in such serious criminal behavior. The challenge of balancing the limitations of official records and self-report remains present in most criminological work, however self-reported offending has been shown to be a valuable and reliable tool to capture offending behavior. Ultimately, this study advances our understanding of gun violence by elucidating the process of gun use in an extremely relevant sample” (p. 257).

“Although political and cultural tensions surrounding gun control and policy remain, there is a need to continue to develop a research agenda that examines characteristics of gun violence, risk and protective factors for involvement in gun violence, and the potential of intervention strategies. For example, future work could evaluate how individual and sociocontextual risk factors also differentiate types of gun violence (e.g., fatal vs. nonfatal, impulsive, targeted or predatory), as the weight of certain risk factors may vary across the type of gun violence examined. Research could also consider tracing how risk and protective factors are related violence in general as well as to the acquisition of, carrying, and use of guns in order to comprehensively understand the process by which individuals integrate firearms into their behavioral repertoire. Lastly, there is need to continue investigating the factors and processes among samples at high risk for involvement in gun violence, like those in the current study. The power and efficiency of future interventions depends on whether they address the issues salient for those individuals most at risk for generating and experiencing harm from using guns” (p. 257-258).

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