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Study: Gun Laws Alone Won’t Stop Firearm Deaths

New research shows the death rate among young people from gun violence rose with the increasing level of social vulnerability within the communities where the incidents occurred, regardless of whether a state’s gun laws were more permissive or restrictive.

The analysis, published Wednesday in JAMA Network Open, examined approximately 5,800 gun violence deaths that occurred from January 2020 through June 2022 among youth 10 to 19 years old alongside a community’s classification in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index. The index, which can be used to show where more help may be needed following an emergency or disaster, reflects demographic and social factors within a community such as poverty, unemployment, crowded housing and vehicle access, as well as minority status.

The study found that communities with very high social vulnerability had a gun violence death rate among youth that was 11 times higher than the rate in communities that were the least socially vulnerable, measured at 13.3 deaths per 100,000 person-years compared with 1.2 per 100,000. In total, there were 3,565 assault-related gun deaths among young people in the communities that were the most socially vulnerable compared with 309 deaths in communities with low social vulnerability.

Researchers also examined youth gun violence deaths in relation to social vulnerability and state gun laws as rated by the Giffords Law Center. Overall, they found death rates were higher in states with more permissive gun laws than in states with more restrictions, ranging from 4.21 per 100,000 for those with the strictest laws to 7.04 per 100,000 for those at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Similarly, when examined alongside social vulnerability classifications, states with the most restrictive gun laws had lower gun violence death rates than states with the most permissive at every level. However, the study found increases in the death rate persisted in communities with increasing levels of social vulnerability, no matter how strong a state’s gun laws were.

“What is clear from our work is that regardless of the strength of the gun laws in an area, the youth gun-related death rate is notably higher in the most socially vulnerable communities – meaning more kids are dying of gun-related violence in the most disadvantaged communities,” says lead study author Dr. Deepika Nehra, an assistant professor of surgery at UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“In both the permissive and restrictive gun law states, the death rate was 10- to 12-fold higher in the most vulnerable communities compared to the least vulnerable communities,” Nehra says. “So, firearm laws mattered, but did not level the effects on a relative scale, and the most disadvantaged communities remained disproportionately impacted across the spectrum of state gun laws.”

Researchers said they believe their study is one of the first to examine gun violence deaths among youth in relation to community social vulnerability as well as the strength of state gun laws, noting that previous studies have examined connections between community characteristics and issues such as shootings involving children and fatal police shootings. An analysis published last year by the CDC found that counties that were more socially vulnerable experienced higher rates of emergency department visits for firearm injuries.

The new study notes there is “likely a complex array of social phenomena that contribute to these associations,” and that “the combination of a lack of opportunity and hopelessness may be a common pathway to high-risk behaviors and violence.”

Nehra says greater investment to address the underlying and longstanding socioeconomic issues within disadvantaged communities is needed.

“We believe that legislation, although important, alone will not address the problem of youth gun violence in the US and that firearm legislation should be accompanied by deep and long-term investment in historically marginalized communities to reduce inequities, create opportunity and address some of the root causes of violence,” Nehra says.

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