A recent study by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based economic and social policy think tank, paints a vivid picture of why guns are so prevalent among young people on the West and South Sides; indeed, so prevalent that roughly one in three youths in some Chicago neighborhoods has carried a gun at some point in their lives. 

The young people, the study showed, simply want guns to protect themselves and their loved ones. Many of them, in fact, have been victimized by guns in the past. They have little to no faith that the police can keep them safe, and they feel that more police will not make the situation any better. One solution that will work, they believe, is providing access to more jobs. 

The Urban Institute teamed up with community organizations working to stop violence in four community areas that have seen high rates of violent crime — Austin, North Lawndale, Englewood and Auburn-Gresham — in order to obtain that feedback. 

The organization surveyed 345 young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 — 57 percent of whom were men. In every survey question, participants were asked to rank responses based on how much they agreed or disagreed with them, which meant that they could pick as many options as they wanted.

Jocelyn Fontaine, one of several Urban Institute fellows who conducted the study, said that the results varied by neighborhood; but, for the purpose of the study, they looked at the responses from all four communities as one set of data. 

The study revealed that about one out of three participants carried a gun, with 93 perfect of them carrying a gun unlawfully. That said, only seven percent of that number said they always carried a gun while 45 percent “rarely” carried one, 32 percent carried one “sometimes” and 16 percent carried one “often.”

When asked why they carried a gun, 93 percent reported that they carried for personal protection, while protecting loved ones or their business got 84 percent and 11 percent of the responses, respectively. Twenty-three percent indicated they carried a gun “to protect [their] reputation” and 11 percent said they carried guns as part of a job. 

The study found that respondents who carried guns were more likely to be either victims of a crime or know someone who was a victim of a crime. This was especially true if they or someone they knew had been shot. 

Fontaine said that police, social service providers, educators and city officials should take a “trauma-informed” approach to addressing crime and gun violence.

“[They need to recognize] that individuals in the neighborhoods have experienced trauma — the trauma of gun violence,” she said. “[There should be] a focus on repairing harm and addressing the trauma.”

The study also revealed that the youth usually either bought guns from street dealers, borrowed them from family and friends or stole them. Around 30 percent said they had friends or family members buy guns for them. And the majority of the respondents believed that if they sold a gun, carried a gun or shot someone, they weren’t likely to get caught. 

Fontaine said that the last part especially surprised her, even knowing how many crimes go unsolved.

“It makes sense, but it’s pretty surprising that young adults feel that they’re unlikely to get caught, and unlikely to get caught for shooting someone,” she said. “It’s striking and it’s a cause of concern.”

Fontaine also said that she was concerned that young people feel that they are more likely to get caught carrying a gun than they are to get caught for shooting someone. 

The study noted that this lack of concern among young people who carry guns may have to do with mistrust of the police. Seventy-one percent of all respondents said that cops stop people “for no good reason.” Sixty-four percent of all respondents said that they themselves were stopped for no good reason.   

Ultimately, Fontaine said, she and the other researchers hope that the study will get community organizations, the city and elected officials to have conversations about the best ways to address the issue of gun violence and think creatively about the solutions. 

 “The city officials and the police need to do better jobs thinking about strategies they use when they’re protecting people,” she said. “I hope this gives city officials some pause and gives them evidence that they need to consider additional strategies about how to help folks in these neighborhoods safe.”

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