Brief “We Carry Guns to Stay Safe”
Perspectives on Guns and Gun Violence from Young Adults Living in Chicago’s West and South Sides
Jocelyn Fontaine, Nancy G. La Vigne, David Leitson, Nkechi Erondu, Cameron Okeke, Anamika Dwivedi
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Homicide is the leading cause of death for black boys and men ages 15 to 34 in Chicago, and the easy availability of guns is a contributing factor. To stem the tide of gun violence in Chicago, policymakers need more insight into why young adults carry guns and what might deter them from doing so.

To that end, the Urban Institute, in partnership with community program providers and with support from the Joyce Foundation, surveyed young adults living in Chicago’s West and South Side neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. This survey’s purpose was to learn firsthand whether and why young adults in these neighborhoods carry guns, how they acquire firearms, how they experience gun violence and policing, and what they think could reduce gun carrying and promote safety.

What do young adults in these neighborhoods think about guns and gun violence?    

These are firsthand insights from the young people we surveyed.

Many young men have carried guns but not routinely. One in three young adults said they had carried a gun, and almost all did so unlawfully. Among the men we surveyed, half reported having carried a gun, but most said they had carried it infrequently.

Men carry guns for protection. Safety concerns—both for themselves and for their family members and friends—were among the top reasons cited for gun carrying among male respondents.

Victimization is a common experience. The justification of carrying because of safety concerns is well supported by the fact that young adults who reported having carried a gun were more likely to experience violent victimization than those who reported never having carried a gun. Those who had been shot or shot at in the past 12 months were 300 percent more likely to have ever carried a gun.

Guns are readily accessible through informal channels. Young adults reported that getting a gun was not difficult. Almost 30 percent indicated that young people have their friends or family members buy guns for them.   

Perceived risk of apprehension is low. Only a small share of those surveyed indicated that getting caught was likely or very likely, and the sentiment was even less common among those who said they have carried a gun. The perceived risk of apprehension for shooting at someone was lower than the perceived risk of apprehension for carrying a gun.

Perceptions of police are poor. Fewer than one in five young adults believe police are doing well. These negative perceptions of police are notably worse among young people who have ever carried a gun.

What might reduce gun carrying among young adults at high risk of gun violence?

When young adults were asked about potential factors that might reduce gun carrying and promote safety, more law enforcement was not the most common response. Instead, they mentioned the need for employment and addressing peer influences around gun carrying and use. They also highlighted the importance of addressing social norms and perceptions that encourage gun carrying.

Local community partners who reviewed these survey findings conjectured that young adults’ reasons for carrying guns are based on an interplay between their perceptions of a threat to self and family or friends and their perceptions that they need to carry because everyone else is carrying. Community partners also underscored the need for police and community-based service providers to be cognizant of and responsive to the high rates of exposure to victimization among the respondents and the acute need for trauma-informed care.

Based on these findings, Chicago officials and stakeholders should consider approaches to reducing gun violence that are holistic and include responses outside the criminal justice system.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Gun violence
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center