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Warning of Growing Public-Health Crisis, Journal Examines Teenage Gun Violence

By Millicent Lawton — June 17, 1992 4 min read

the topic of violence, the Journal of the A7rU!ncan Medical Association last week published separate studies concluding that urban teenagers have ready access to handguns, that they are more likely to be murdered by gunfire in urban areas than nonurban areas, and that gun-related homicides of black teenage males increased significantly in the last decade in nearly half of8O U.S. counties.

In an editorial in the same issue, JAMA’S editor, Dr. George D. Lundberg, and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called violence an “acute public-health emergency,” especially for young black men and women.

that firearms be licensed in the same way that automobiles are. Americans should meet requirements in such areas as age and physical and mental condition, and should demonstrate both knowledge and skill in the proper use of a firearm before being allowed to own one, the editorial said. The right to own or use a gun should be forfeited if such requirements are no longer met, the authors conclude.

“Defining motor-vehicle casualties as a public-health issue and initiating intervention activity succeeded in reversing the upward trend of such fatalities, without banning or confiscating automobiles,” they write.

Easy Access to Guns

A study of970 Seattle high-school juniors-half of the district’s 11th-grade enrollment-revealed that 34 percent of the students (47 percent of males, 22 percent of females) reported having easy access to handguns.

More than 1 in 16, or 6.4 percent, reported owning a handgun-ll.4 percent of boys and 1.5 percent of girls-according to the school-based survey conducted by two University of Washington physicians.

One-third of the handgun owners said they had fired at someone, and 6 percent of male students reported having carried a handgun to school at some time in the past.

H a student was a gang member, had been sentenced by a judge, sold drugs, been suspended or expelled from school, or involved in assault and battery, he or she was more likely to own a handgun.

But fully 22 percent of male handgun owners did not report any such behavior, researchers found.

At 59 percent, African-American male students were the most likely to report having easy access to handguns; they were twice as likely as Asians/Pacific Islanders to say so.

Easy access to handguns was most common in the lowest socioeoonomic class and least common in the highest, the authors said.

The researchers also reported that the 5 high schools out of the district’s 10 that did not participate in the study reported a higher number of weapons confiscated during the preceding school year than did the participating schools.

More Firearm Murders in Cities

Another JAMA article looked at differences in the prevalence of gun-related and nonfirearm homicide among all 15- to 19-year-olds depending on the area’s degree of urbanization.

The study found that in 1989, firearms were nearly five times more likely to kill teenagers in a metropolitan county than in a nonmetropolitan one: 13.7 deaths versus 2.9 deaths per 100,000 population.

Metropolitan counties--those having 1980 populations ranging from less than 250,000 to 1 million or more--are defined as those that are part of a metropolitan statistical area, or M.S.A.

The differential between nonfirearm murders in urban and nonurban areas was much smaller, the researchers at the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics found.

Firearm homicide rates also were four to six times higher in “core” metropolitan counties that contained the primary central city of an M.B.A. than in other metropolitan counties-with a rate of 27.7 per 100,000 population, the study found.

The firearm murder rates, as well as the nonfirearm homicide rates, for black males were the highest in all urbanization categories; those for white females were lowest, the study said.

A black teenage male was 6112 times more likely to be killed with a gun in metropolitan counties in 1989 than in nonmetropolitan ones.

In core counties, the gun-related murder rate claimed 143.9 of these teenagers per 100,000 population two to three times the rate in other metropolitan counties where 48 to 63 per 100,000 died by gunfire.

Firearm homicide is the leading cause of death among black males 15 to 19 years old, and has been since 1969.

The same study found that between 1979 and 1989, the firearm murder rate for youths ages 15 to 19 increased 61 percent-from 6.9 to 11.1 deaths per 100,000 population. That was faster than for any other cause of death for this group.

During the same period, the non- I firearm homicide rate decreased 29 percent. Therefore, all of the increase in the overall homicide rate between 1979 and 1989 for this age group came about through the increase in gun-related slayings, the study said.

Firearm homicide is the second-leading cause of death for all 15-19-year-olds, behind motor-vehicle crashes, and has been since 1986.

More Black Teens Killed

Another study by the same C.D.C. researchers identified 13 U.S. counties with significantly high firearm homicide rates for black male teenagers in 1987 to 1989, compared with just 7 such counties in the period 1983 through 1985.

Five counties, researchers found, had significantly high rates for this group in both time periods: Los Angeles; Wayne, Mich.; Kings, N.Y.; St. Louis City, Mo.; and Baltimore City.

Firearm homicide rates for those teenagers increased significantly between 1983-85 and 1987-89 in 34 out of the 80 counties examined, researchers found.

In the same issue of the medical journal, a commentary by a Seattle physician examined the relationship between television and violence.

Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall advocated limits on viewing for children, time and channel locks for sets, violence ratings for programs, and the inclusion of television violence on the public-health agenda “along with safety seai'3, bicycle helmets, immunizations, and good nutrition.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Warning of Growing Public-Health Crisis, Journal Examines Teenage Gun Violence


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