People don’t buy guns for no reason.
The likelihood a young person will end up a participant in or victim of a shooting depends on factors including socioeconomic status and trauma at a young age, a new report from the City of Toronto and partner organizations says — factors that are hard to study, and often left out of reports on crime statistics.
The report – which comes during a spike in gun violence, is based on independent research and interviews with 10 people who were between the ages of 15 and 30 when they were incarcerated for gun possession. It focuses on what it calls “sparks,” or events that can increase or decrease the likelihood that a young person will be involved in firearms-related crime. For instance, experiencing gun violence could lead a child to buy a gun to protect himself or herself, and be charged with possession of a firearm.
Some of the sparks for those interviewed for the report include poverty, racism and negative experiences with the legal system. Multiple participants said they internalized behaviour they viewed as “expected” from them due to experiences with the media and police.
“I’ve tried to change my appearance, I’ve tried to change my lingo, I’ve tried to change a lot of things cause at the end of the day I realized those are the things that the police are targeting,” one interviewee said.
The main reason for gun purchases, though, was self-preservation. All 10 young people interviewed for the report said they bought firearms for protection. They spoke of seeing friends or family members shot: “I just heard pow pow pow [and saw] a guy running and everyone was scared … and that’s what kind of like sparked getting a gun,” one participant said.
Another described being shot at: “Not being able to do anything but running in fear,” that person said, was “a feeling that I told myself I’d never wanna feel again.”
Laura Metcalfe, who has been involved in implementing the recommendations of the Toronto Youth Equity Strategy (TYES) on preventing youth violence, said such people need to be protected. “And we need to change their life circumstances so that isn’t how they are feeling,” she said.
The parallels among youth involved in gun violence are too obvious to ignore, said report author Fiona Scott, a research consultant who has worked for years in prisons and forensic psychiatric hospitals.
“There is a very similar set of negative life circumstances that [these] young people experience," Ms. Scott said. She presented the report’s findings at city hall on Friday alongside staff from the city, the youth violence prevention program Amadeusz, and Humber College, which contributed research.
Most youth involved in gun violence were born into poverty, and many experienced violence at a young age, she said. The similar factors “can’t be explained by chance or coincidence," she said, but they can be explained by brain development.
Circumstances that stem from poverty and trauma — such as a lack of time spent with parents because the adults are working multiple jobs, poor experiences at school and a lack of positive role models — affect the portions of the brain responsible for planning ahead and considering the consequence of one’s actions, Ms. Scott said.
There are two ways to deal with violent youth, she said: locking them in prison, “which is rarely the place where young people figure out how to turn their lives around,” or facilitating access to opportunities.
“It’s clear to me and other researchers in crime prevention … that the latter option is what's going to make our streets safer, and that’s what we all want," she said.
The report contains no specific recommendations, but researchers advocated for evidence-based harm-reduction policies like those in the TYES report, and a provincial government report called Roots of Youth Violence, including adding programs for vulnerable youth and involving young people in determining what those programs will be.