‘Age Matters’: The Deadly Link between Guns and Young People

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Age-based restrictions on obtaining a firearm are not conclusive in reducing injury and death of young people, according to a of panel of Duke University researchers.

Barring access to a firearm following a juvenile conviction doesn’t mean that the individual as a young adult can’t get their hands on illegal firearms, or recidivate, the panel added.

Adults in the U.S. who committed a criminal offense when they were minors may be subject to differing age-based restrictions on their access to firearms depending on the nature and severity of their juvenile offense; their age at the time of the offense; their state’s laws regarding firearm eligibility, and expungement of juvenile records.

But while age-based restrictions have been shown to help curb gun violence, they’re not sufficient to reduce injury and mortality for young adults, the panel said.

The researchers explored the link between “Juvenile Delinquency & Adult Gun Sales” (JDAGS) in a webinar hosted by the Joyce Foundation Tuesday. The webinar was part of an online series which aims to highlight emerging research on gun violence.

The latest research, conducted by Jeffrey Swanson, Josie Caves Sivaraman, Brett Gardner, and Darrell Miller, of Duke University and the University of Virginia, examines the rationale and effectiveness of the laws within the landscape of the 50 states.

Jeffrey Swanson, a Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and an affiliate at Duke Law School’s Center for Firearms Law, said existing gun laws represented a policy dilemma.

“Should a juvenile crime record disqualify an adult from purchasing or possessing a firearm in the United States?” he said, adding that lawmakers are tasked with addressing the “ethical tension” that exists between the two goals of public firearm policy for adults with juvenile records: (1) restoring civil rights to former offenders, and (2) protecting the public and limiting firearm access to individuals who pose a threat.

The evidence shows that age matters when it comes to the link between gun possession and gun violence, he said.

The majority of U.S. homicide perpetrators are aged 17-29.” Swanson said. “If it’s the highest risk [population], it’s where we should focus the most legislation and research.”

States vary widely in firearm access policies applied to adults with juvenile justice records. Some states don’t generally prohibit adult lawful gun purchases from individuals with juvenile offense records, while other states do.

For example, according to Josie Caves Sivaraman, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, North Carolina has no restriction, and anyone over the age of 18 can purchase a firearm.

Conversely, Virginia bars any adult with a juvenile record from purchasing a gun until they’re 29.

Brett Gardner, a researcher at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia Law School, said a key elements of the study involved researching relevant state statutes for minimum age of purchasing versus possession, juvenile delinquency and offence variations, delinquency record expungement, and criminal court jurisdiction.

“We put in a lot of work to standardize the statutory language from each state to make sure we were comparing apples to apples for each state,” Gardner shared.

“It sounds like a lot of work because it was a lot of work,” Gardner noted, emphasizing that getting the methodology and operational definitions was imperative for this policy research.

Key Findings and Policy Implications

The study results to date are consistent with “a risked-based rationale for legally restricting young adults with a serious juvenile crime record from accessing firearms, at least until later into the decade of their 20s,” the experts explained in the webinar.

But these restrictions alone are insufficient to “reduce firearm-related injury and mortality in the target population,” the study concluded.

In other words, the inability to legally get a firearm following a juvenile conviction doesn’t mean that the individual as a young adult can’t get their hands on illegal firearms, or recidivate.

Moreover, the researchers note the easily accessible firearm market that many young people can access without undergoing a background check — regardless of record expungement.

Darrell Miller, an attorney and a Melvin G. Shimm Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Intellectual Life at Duke Law School noted the firearm market is easily accessible to many young people without requiring them to undergo a background check — regardless of record expungement.

The experts said “expanded comprehensive background checks and a supply-side policy focused on understanding and interrupting informal or illegal firearm markets is needed, in order for age-based point-of-sale restrictions to be most effective in actually preventing adverse firearm-related outcomes.”

Jeffrey Swanson, MA, Ph.D., is a Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and Faculty Affiliate of the Center for Firearms Law at Duke Law School.

Josie Caves Sivaraman, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine.

Brett Gardner, Ph.D., is a Researcher at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia Law School.

Darrell Miller, JD, is a Melvin G. Shimm Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Intellectual Life at Duke Law School, as well as the Co-Director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.

The full webinar will be available soon on the Joyce Foundation website.

Andrea Cipriano is Associate Editor of The Crime Report

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