The Relationships Among Exposure to Violence, Psychological Distress, and Gun Carrying Among Male Adolescents Found Guilty of Serious Legal Offenses: A Longitudinal Cohort Study

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Abstract

Background:

Gun violence and psychological problems are often conflated in public discourse on gun safety. However, few studies have empirically assessed the effect of exposure to violence when exploring the association between gun carrying and psychological distress.

Objective:

To examine the potential effect of exposure to violence on the associations between gun carrying and psychological distress among vulnerable adolescents.

Design:

Longitudinal cohort study.

Setting:

The Pathways to Desistance study, a study of youths found guilty of a serious criminal offense in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, or Maricopa County, Arizona.

Participants:

1170 male youths aged 14 to 19 years who had been found guilty of a serious criminal offense.

Measurements:

Youths were assessed at baseline and at four 6-month intervals with regard to gun carrying (“Have you carried a gun?”), psychological distress (Global Severity Index), and exposure to violence (modified version of the Exposure to Violence Inventory).

Results:

At the bivariate level, gun carrying was consistently associated with higher levels of psychological distress. However, the association between psychological distress and gun carrying diminished or disappeared when exposure to violence was considered. Exposure to violence (as either a victim or a witness) was significantly related to gun carrying at all follow-up assessments, with increased odds of gun carrying ranging from 1.43 to 1.87 with each additional report of exposure to violence.

Limitations:

The study sample was limited to justice-involved male youths. Precarrying distress and exposure to violence could not be fully captured because many participants had initiated gun carrying before baseline.

Conclusion:

In male youths involved in the criminal justice system, the relationship between psychological distress and gun carrying seems to be influenced by exposure to violence (either experiencing or witnessing it). Further study is warranted to explore whether interventions after exposure to violence could reduce gun carrying in this population.

Primary Funding Source:

None.

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