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Flint, MI– When a child observes gun violence, their risk of engaging with guns as an adult increases, according to a recent study.
A team of researchers from the University of Michigan followed hundreds of Flint children over the course of ten years to see how early exposure to gun violence might predict their future relationship with guns.
The study found that children with more exposure to gun violence in their family, their neighborhood, video games, and movies, were more prone to using guns, believing gun use is acceptable, carrying a weapon, and getting arrested for a weapons-related crime ten years later.
“Committing violence is like contagious disease. If you’re around people committing violence, you’re likely to catch the disease of violence,” said the study’s lead author, L. Rowell Huesmann.
Huesmann and other researchers chose Flint as the location for the study, as it had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and a high rate of gun violence. For the study’s sample, the researchers selected 426 second-, fourth-, and ninth-graders who were living in and attending schools in Flint in 2007.
For the first three years of the study, researchers interviewed the children, their parents, and their teachers about the child’s initial levels of aggression, as well as their exposure to family violence, neighborhood gun violence, and media gun violence.
The researchers also used the Flint Police Department’s database to collect data about every crime that fell within a quarter-mile radius of each child’s home. To see if other factors influence a child’s future with guns, the researchers also tracked family income, parents’ education, parents’ aggressiveness, and the children’s achievement test percentile on the Michigan Educational Achievement Test ( also known as MEAP).
Within the first three years of the study, 73% of children had been exposed to some neighborhood gun violence. Thirty-two percent had been exposed to some family violence, and 1.7% had been exposed to weapons violence in their family.
More than 95% of the sample lived within a quarter of a mile of a gun crime incident, and more than 98% of the sample had some level of exposure to violence in movies and video games in their childhood.
After the initial interviews in the first three years, researchers interviewed the participants ten years later, once they were adults ages 18 to 28 years old, about their relationship with guns.
About half of the selected participants had relocated, and the researchers were unable to find them. So the final sample shrank to 223 people—52% of the original sample.
They interviewed the participants they could locate about their use of guns and other weapons. Did they carry a gun, not for hunting purposes? Had they ever shot somebody or threatened to shoot somebody? Did they fantasize about using a gun on someone? Did they believe using a gun against someone is OK in some situations?
The researchers also used public records to collect data about participants’ contact with law and asked them to self-report any juvenile issues with the law they may have had.
At the ten-year mark, according to Michigan State Police records, 44% of the sample had been arrested for a crime, and 41.3% had been convicted since they were in high school. About 8% of the sample had been arrested for a weapons crime.
Seventeen percent of the sample reported carrying a gun, 31% reported carrying either a gun or another weapon, and 2.7% reported that they had shot, tried to shoot, or threatened to shoot another person with a gun.
For the personal beliefs portion of the interviews, 44.1% thought it “was not really wrong” to use a gun on another person in some situations, and 17.5% said that they fantasized about using a gun or other weapon to hurt someone.
Within the ten-year time frame of the study of course, the Flint Water Crisis began. This wasn’t mentioned in the study, and Huesmann explained that this happened after the children participating had already been measured.
He said at that point it would have been too late to measure their blood samples and get accurate readings about their level of lead exposure.
“Any medical doctor knows that lead poisoning lowers IQ, and increases the risk of them behaving violently … so I personally believe that the kids who were exposed more to lead, are at greater risk to behave violently,” he said. “But in this study, we couldn’t test it.”
Without looking at the impacts of lead, the study did find significant correlations between childhood exposure to gun violence, and future beliefs and behaviors related to guns.
Playing more violent video games, watching violent movies, and having more exposure to neighborhood gun violence and family weapons violence in childhood, was positively correlated with carrying a gun and using or threatening to use a gun on another person ten years later.
Playing violent video games as a child was also the most significant predictor that the participant would believe gun use and threatening others with guns was OK in adulthood.
The strongest predictors of arrests and convictions related to weapon crimes as an adult were displaying aggression as a child and having observed neighborhood gun violence, family violence, video game violence, and movie violence as a child.
Huesmann said these were similar findings to a study he did in Israel, looking at Palestinian youth who observe ethno-political violence. He said researchers found that Palestinian children who witnessed Israeli soldiers beating up other Palestinian children were more likely to beat up their own Palestinian peers.
“It makes violence normative. It seems more acceptable,” Huesmann said of observing violence. “All of this really fits into the model that violence is like a contagious disease. The more you’re exposed to violence, the more you’re likely to catch the bug and think violence is OK, and not feel anxiety when you see violence. All of those things make it easier to behave violently.”
The Flint study found that factors like parents’ income and education had no correlation in predicting their later gun and weapon use, but test scores did. As expected, children with higher MEAP scores were less likely to carry a gun or other weapon, or engage in criminal behavior with a weapon ten years later.
But there was one finding in the study that surprised the researchers.
Contrary to their expectations, the number of gun violence incidents in a quarter-mile radius of a child’s home was “significantly negatively correlated with the youth’s acceptance of using guns 10 years later.” That means, having gun violence nearby but not actually observing it was related to believing that using guns is not appropriate.
“If kids didn’t observe violence themselves, but they lived in a neighborhood where they knew there was more violence, they tended to think violence was less acceptable than other kids who had seen violence,” Huesmann said. “So being in a violent neighborhood if you don’t see any violence, but you know about it, is likely to lead to beliefs that it’s not OK.”
Huesmann said this fits in with the psychological reasoning behind why exposure to violence at a young age increases their risk in engaging in it as an adult.
“Kids are terrific imitators, and they catch this disease,” Huesmann said. “But if they just hear about things, they are also thinking people. So they think it’s bad, if they haven’t seen it themselves.”
At the end of the study, the authors write about this perspective of looking at violence as a contagious disease.
“People seem to “catch” the violence bug by being exposed to other people who are violent…,” the authors of the study write. “Unlike contagious diseases caused by germs, one does not need to be physically proximate to a violent person to be infected by it; one only needs to observe the violent person.”
They go on to say, “repeated exposures to violence make infection more likely, some youth are more resistant to being infected than others, and various situational factors may moderate the risk of infection.”
Huesmann said this research study, and this perspective viewing violence as a disease, leaves both a positive and a negative message for people.
“Like any contagious disease, you know, if you can, immaculate, vaccinate, and prevent enough people from catching the disease, then nobody else can catch it from that,” he said. “So if you can intervene to reduce violence, then … less kids will see the violence, and kids are less likely to develop this disease of committing violence.”
He said if violence can be reduced, it should have a “self-promoting factor of reducing more gun violence,” since exposure is the greatest risk.
“The negative message, of course, is that if there’s more gun violence, it’s likely to increase even more because more people will catch it,” he said. “So, I think the major lesson is we’ve got to find ways to reduce gun violence to which kids are exposed.”
He said doing that isn’t easy, but made a few suggestions.
“For example, if pro-athletes who commit family violence are not treated as heroes and are sufficiently ostracized, that would help,” he said. “And in terms of neighborhood violence, if you have neighborhood associations that are really opposed to violence and making sure kids aren’t exposed to violence, that would help, too.”