GUNSBirth Year Predicts Exposure to Gun Violence

By Christy DeSmith

Published 24 May 2023

In long-term study, risk of getting shot or witnessing a shooting varied by respondents’ race, sex, and when they came of age. The study found that more than half of Black and Hispanic respondents witnessed a shooting by age 14 on average.

A new study examining exposure to gun violence from youth to middle-age reveals stark racial disparities — with more than half of Black and Hispanic respondents witnessing a shooting by age 14 on average — and surprising insights on the role of birth year.

In the first-of-its-kind analysis published May 9 in JAMA Network Open, a Harvard sociology professor and colleagues set out to examine exposure to shootings by race, sex, and birth year using data that followed respondents from childhood up to age 40.

“The idea here is to take a life-course perspective,” said Robert J. Sampson, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor. “When is exposure to gun violence happening? How does that change over the life course? And how do those patterns vary by race, sex, and all the societal changes that are happening?”

To tackle these questions researchers analyzed longitudinal data on a representative sample of 2,418 Chicago residents — half male, half female — who were born in 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1996. Four rounds of data were collected for up to 25 years.

Making this study possible was the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which Sampson helped launch in the mid-1990s to follow various birth cohorts. “One of the project’s advantages is the ability to disentangle age and life-course differences from what’s happening in society at large,” Sampson said. The social scientist has drawn on the project’s data for multiple papers and a book, with a forthcoming title arriving next year on the interaction of child and societal development.

For this study, Sampson and his co-authors found exposure to gun violence varied depending on when the respondent was born. Overall, exposure rises in adolescence — 14 is the mean age of seeing somebody shot and 17 is the mean age for being shot.

“The oldest cohorts were quite disadvantaged,” Sampson noted, “because they came of age during the peak of violence in the United States and Chicago.” U.S. homicide rates topped out in the early 1990s, just as those born in the early ’80s reached their teens. Around half of respondents born in 1981 and 1984 reported witnessing gun violence, while those who had been shot hovered around 7 percent.