Birth Year Predicts Exposure to Gun Violence

As crime rates declined, subsequent birth cohorts faced less exposure to firearms. Those born in 1996 reported the lowest levels of seeing somebody shot — their exposure was half that of the two oldest cohorts — but direct victimization was another story. “Surprisingly,” Sampson added, “unlike witnessing violence, there was no statistical difference between the 1981 and 1996 cohorts in their risk of being shot.”

“In 2015 or 2016, violence in the United States, but particularly in Chicago, started to skyrocket,” said Sampson, who noted that gun-related deaths peaked in 2021 — with nearly all homicides today being gun homicides. “As being shot tends to happen later in the life course, the youngest cohort all of a sudden faced a much higher risk.”

Sampson’s study confirmed previous research establishing racial disparities in exposure to gun violence. Black and Hispanic participants were more than twice as likely to be directly victimized. More than 7 percent of both Black and Hispanic respondents reported being shot by age 40. Two of the participants, one Black and one Hispanic, were fatally shot. In contrast, 3 percent of white respondents reported being shot. Individuals in the sample from other races were excluded, because their numbers were too small for longitudinal analysis.

The numbers were similarly stark for witnessing gun violence. Fifty-six percent of Black respondents and 55 percent of Hispanics reported seeing someone shot, compared with 25 percent of whites.

“You also see differences in the age distribution,” Sampson said. “Gunshot victimization flatlines among the white population after age 21, whereas it keeps rising all the way up to age 40 for Black and Hispanic respondents.”

More surprising to the researchers were rates of exposure by sex, given all we know about men’s greater involvement in violence. Men were far more likely to be shot — 11 percent of male vs. 2 percent of female study participants — but the differences were modest for witnessing gun violence (58 vs. 43 percent). For Sampson, this finding speaks to the prevalence of firearms in American life.

As a final step, Sampson and his co-authors drew from the Gun Violence Archive to map the proximity of each respondent’s residence to shootings. This approach revealed minimal differences by sex and age, but the racial gap again proved glaring. Blacks were far more likely than Hispanics and whites to live in neighborhoods plagued by shootings in addition to compounded adversities (like concentrated poverty), Sampson has shown in prior work. “But perhaps the greatest adversity of all is violence,” he said.

Studies show that witnessing a shooting has long-term developmental and psychological effects that impact education, relationships, and employment. “The ramifying consequences are profound, which makes gun violence all the more important to pinpoint,” Sampson said.

Christy DeSmith is a Harvard Staff Writer. This article is published courtesy of the Harvard Gazette, Harvard University’s official newspaper.