Behavior-Oriented Approaches to Reducing Youth Gun Violence

By Hardy, Marjorie S. | The Future of Children, Summer-Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Behavior-Oriented Approaches to Reducing Youth Gun Violence


Hardy, Marjorie S., The Future of Children


SUMMARY

Advocacy groups on both sides of the guns issue frequently point to changing personal behavior--of both parents and children--as a key element in reducing gun violence among youth. Efforts to bring about these changes range from community-based campaigns, to laws and programs that encourage parents to store their guns safely, to educational initiatives that focus on keeping young children away from guns and encouraging youth to resolve disputes without violence.

Unfortunately, these behavior-oriented programs have not shown great success in reducing youth gun violence. This article reviews the research surrounding behavioral approaches to gun violence prevention and highlights obstacles that hamper the effectiveness of these programs.

* Supportive communities can play a key role in protecting youth from violence in general, but the few community-based violence prevention programs that focus on youth have not been shown to decrease youth access to or use of guns.

By and large, behavioral programs and legal interventions aimed at parents have not been proven to reduce youth gun violence. This may be due in part to parental misperceptions about children's risk of injury and ability to protect themselves.

* Children and youth are particularly difficult targets for behavioral change programs. Cognitive immaturity among younger children and perceptions of invulnerability among adolescents may be part of the reason. Most programs that seek to persuade youth to stay away from guns have not been proven effective.

The author concludes that, although behavioral programs could be improved, overall they hold only limited promise for reducing youth gun violence.

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Public policy efforts to reduce gun-related deaths and injuries among youth often meet resistance from those who cite education as the key to "gun proofing" children. However, behavioral approaches to reducing firearm violence-- programs to change the behaviors of parents and children regarding guns--rarely have been evaluated, and those that have been have not demonstrated great success. Though well-intentioned, many of these approaches are poorly designed, and some may even have the inadvertent effect of making the problem worse. Nonetheless, politics, legal considerations, and an intuitive sense that behavioral programs work ensure their continued use.

One explanation for the failure of behavioral programs may be found in research examining the prevention of injury and violence in general. According to this research, injury prevention efforts can be classified along a passive-active continuum, from eliminating hazards from the environment (passive) to teaching safe behavior (active). Passive prevention efforts require no effort at all on the part of individuals (for example, choosing not to own a firearm). Some active efforts require a one-time behavior (such as placing and keeping a trigger lock on a gun); others require a moderate amount of effort (such as locking up a gun after each use); and still others require constant effort (such as supervising children). Researchers agree that the more effort a prevention strategy requires, the more difficult it is to implement. (1,2) Modifying the behavior of parents or children is thus more difficult than modifying the environment or the firearm itself (See the article by Teret and Culross in this journal issue.)

Drawing upon lessons learned from general injury and violence prevention research, this article examines behavior-oriented approaches to reducing youth firearm injury and violence. First, it briefly describes community-based interventions that focus on reducing youth gun violence. Second, the article explores working with parents to reduce children's unsupervised access to guns, and it assesses two approaches toward modifying parents' behavior concerning gun ownership and storage. …

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