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New Report Shares First-Hand Experiences of Young Americans’ Relationship with Guns

WASHINGTON — Today, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University released qualitative findings from a year-long study of youth attitudes toward guns in the United States. Focus groups and interviews with young people – paired with a groundbreaking quantitative analysis released in July 2023 – illustrate the looming presence of guns in the lives of young Americans.

“Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young people in America. These are real lives that are being shattered every day by our gun violence crisis,” said Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action and senior vice president for movement building at Everytown for Gun Safety. “It is critical that we not only understand the quantitative data around youth attitudes towards guns, but better understand how their lived experiences impact their attitudes towards firearms as we work to change the culture around gun safety in this country.”

The new report, U.S. Youth Attitudes on Guns: Final Qualitative Focus Group Findings, sheds light on young people and their access to guns, experiences of gun violence, trust in the government and media, and sense of safety in their neighborhoods, communities and schools. In particular, the report explores the relationship between masculinity and gun ownership, finding that participants framed a “masculine protector” figure as both a legitimate gun owner, user and the person for whom guns are intended.

“Understanding the root causes of gun violence is critical to ending this epidemic and protecting our children,” said Aaron Flanagan, deputy director of prevention & partnerships, SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “The data show a clear line between white supremacist ideologies and why some young people feel compelled to own firearms. Each of us has a role to play in disrupting this radicalization of our children and young adults and utilizing evidence-based, community-centered prevention measures.”

Additional findings from the report include:

  • Fantasies of gun use for protection
    • For many participants – especially male participants – the thought of being rendered powerless, helpless and/or vulnerable was a motivating factor for gun ownership.
    • Women perceived gun ownership as an equalizer, a way to protect oneself in the absence of a male protector.
  • Carceral logics and school safety
    • Although having a police officer or armed security guard present on school grounds made some students feel safer, other students expressed doubts that security personnel would be able to fully protect people if a shooting happened.
  • Police and guns
    • Participants had a diversity of opinions regarding law enforcement, reflecting complex relationships that communities have with police and that, in many cases, their presence does not necessarily lead to people feeling safer.

“Our study highlights the need to focus on community safety; making communities safer, and making community members feel safer,” said Pasha Dashtgard, director of research for PERIL. “Right now our children are scared, anxious, and depressed. They worry about when and where the next mass shooting will be, and are skeptical that their schools and communities are prepared to protect them. By addressing not just gun access but also the motivations to own and use firearms (e.g., who youth see as perpetrators of gun violence, how ideas around gender and socioeconomics motivate gun ownership), we can make a systemic, long-term impact on gun violence in our country.”

Read the full report HERE.

Editor’s Note: In July 2023, Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University released a groundbreaking study, U.S. Youth Attitudes on Guns, which uncovered insights from more than 4,100 young people across the United States, including broad consensus among young people that America is facing a gun violence crisis. In fact, four out of five youth surveyed said that the level of gun violence in the U.S. is a problem, and 60% believe that gun safety laws should be stricter.