10% of Youths in Survey Report Firing a Gun or Being Shot at

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Roughly one in 10 10- to 19-year-olds say they have fired a gun at someone or have been shot at, and about two in five say they know someone who has been killed or wounded by gunfire, according to a survey conducted by the pollster Louis Harris for the Harvard School of Public Health.

Some experts and educators, however, dismissed the grim findings as being unrealistic, attributing the high numbers to youthful bravado.

Mr. Harris's study also found:

  • Nearly 60 percent of the youths say they could get a handgun, one-fifth claiming they could do so within an hour and more than a third saying they could do so within a day.
  • Some 15 percent say they have carried a handgun during the past month, and 4 percent say they brought one to school during the past year.

The data were drawn from questionnaires completed anonymously in April and May by a nationally representative sample of 2,508 students at 96 public and private elementary, middle, and senior high schools. The survey has a confidence rate of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The national media quickly picked up on the startling findings, perhaps in part because they were released shortly after Congressional hearings on violence on television and just as the Clinton Administration was convening some 300 social-service providers and young people in Washington to discuss violence prevention. (See related story, page 20).

The topic of children and violence was featured on the covers of last week's editions of Time and Newsweek, and NBC's "Today'' show ran a segment on the subject last Thursday. Both stories and the show cited the Harris survey.

"One of the figures that really got me was that 39 percent said they didn't think they were going to grow up and become older,'' said Gwen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "That's very striking. If we can't offer kids hope, there's no reason for them to change their behavior.''

Some Are Skeptical

Several academics and education leaders, however, said they doubted the validity of some of the survey's more surprising findings.

Gwendolyn Cooke, the director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said she could not believe that one in 10 students really had pulled the trigger on someone or had been someone's target.

"I think that's exaggeration, oh yes,'' she chuckled.

"You're dealing with adolescents, and adolescents tend to exaggerate, that's the nature of their perception of the world,'' she said.

Karen W. Powe, director of policy studies for the National School Boards Association, agreed that the findings "certainly look high based on everything I've seen up to this point.''

She warned, too, that the survey may do more harm than good if the findings are not accepted as valid and the severity of the problem is consequently downplayed.

"Decisionmakers in school districts are more inclined to say 'Oh well, I've been telling you all along that we didn't have that problem here,''' she asserted.

Dr. Bennett L. Leventhal, a child psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, said he and his colleagues "tend not to take'' surveys of self-reported behavior "relatively seriously.''

According to Dr. Leventhal, surveys without multiple informants tend not to be generalizable to the population at large.

"If you ask just the children, you get useful information,'' he said. But it is more reliable if the same children's parents and teachers are also interviewed, he continued.

Despite those caveats, he added, "I don't want to trivialize the fact that too many children are being exposed to guns and that there are far too many guns out there.''

"The argument isn't whether that's a problem, [but] what the magnitude is,'' he said.

Mr. Harris defended his findings in a telephone interview last week and predicted they will be validated by other researchers.

"I don't think these are things people brag about,'' he said."We find that kids, if anything, are more on the level than adults are.''

Vol. 12, Issue 40, Page 21

Published in Print: August 4, 1993, as 10% of Youths in Survey Report Firing a Gun or Being Shot at
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