74% of young people say gun violence is a problem in the US. But they have little faith in the government to tackle it

Since my openDemocracy column in late April about gun violence in the United States, there have been more than 250 mass shootings in the country, bringing the total for the year so far (as of yesterday) to 430. That's just shy of two mass shootings a day for 2023 so far.

One recent incident took place in the small city of Muncie, Indiana, home of Ball State University, which happens to be where I did my bachelor's degree 20 years ago. On 30 July, an assailant began firing into the crowd at a late-night block party, killing a 30-year-old man and sending 19 other people to hospital. I've only been back to Muncie a few times since 2003, but when a mass shooting occurs in a place you know, it hits close to home.

Of course, the stress I feel over the epidemic of gun violence in the US probably pales in comparison to that felt by many younger Americans, for whom school shootings have occurred far more regularly than they did in the 1980s and '90s, when I was in school. Back then, in central Indiana, our teachers led us through tornado drills. Today, schools practise active shooter drills (although it is worth noting that advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety recommends these are discontinued, given that drills can be traumatising and there is no evidence that they are effective at preventing gun violence). School shootings, which account for 0.2% of gun deaths in the United States, are, of course, a kind of terrorism. And the fact that they occur at all is undoubtedly terrifying.

What young Americans think

According to a new report, more than a quarter of young Americans (aged 14 to 30) have experienced a lockdown because of an active shooting incident, while the average young American knows "at least one person who has been injured or killed by a gun". It also found 74% of young Americans agreeing that gun violence is a problem, and 59% supporting stricter gun safety laws.

The report - based on a nationally representative sample of 4,156 American young people - was produced by Everytown, anti-hate advocacy organisation the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and American University's Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL).

The report says that although mass shootings make up only 1% of America's annual gun violence, "they have an outsize impact on young people's lives, due in part to the amount of media coverage they receive, the number of times specific communities are targeted and the prevalence of both lockdown drills and actual lockdowns."

Fear of school shootings (as unlikely as any individual may be to actually experience them) exerts a strong impact. "School safety is a major concern for youth and worry about school shootings is associated with a host of negative mental health outcomes," reads one of the report's findings.

We can hardly dismiss these fears as irrational, given that gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and teens in the States, having surpassed road crashes in 2020.

The new report highlights that three million American youth are exposed to shootings each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US's national public health agency. That is bound to have an impact even if the numbers of minors killed (roughly 3,500) and injured (15,000) in shootings are orders of magnitude lower - though that is still an appalling number of dead and injured children and far exceeds the norm among peer nations.

While the report clearly shows that a solid majority of young Americans want more restrictions on gun ownership, it also found partisan differences. Tracking correlations between political alignment and other attitudes is standard practice for such social surveys.

Just over 28% of respondents reported being members of "at least one gun-related club or organization", while identification with "gun culture" (a term the survey's designers left to respondents to define) correlates with being white, living in a rural area, and identifying as Republican.

The report's findings include a "moderate" association between identifying more strongly as Republican and a higher so-called "racial resentment score" (derived from an index that assesses "feelings toward Black people" among other things), as well as support for male supremacy (identified through agreement with statements such as "women cannot help but be attracted to those who are higher in status than they are" and "women use feminism to gain an unfair advantage over men").

Some 16% of young Americans hold male supremacist views, the report found. Conversely, those who identify more strongly as Democrats tended to identify as women and to score lower on racial resentment and male supremacy. Male supremacist beliefs also correlated weakly with a higher belief that the second amendment to the US constitution (the right to bear arms) gives citizens the right to overthrow the government.

Little faith in government

Interestingly, youth across the political spectrum have little faith in institutions or government to address the US's gun violence problem. Given the paucity of action successive US governments have taken to regulate gun ownership - despite overwhelming evidence that decreased access to guns results in lower gun violence - I can't say I blame the youth for feeling this way.

The report's authors argue that a better understanding of young people's attitudes toward guns and gun violence, including what narratives they find most convincing, should help advocates counter right-wing radicalisation among young Americans, and convince young people that government can be part of the solution.

To be frank, I struggle with this myself - not with the belief that governments in general can function to prevent gun violence, but more specifically with believing that the US government can. And so long as our federal government gives Republicans disproportionate power due to a variety of unfair structural advantages (equal state representation in the Senate gives unfair influence to predominantly rural states with a low population density, for example), it will be difficult to convince the large majority of youth who want a less violent America that their government can help bring that better future about.

There is no clear immediate path to the major structural reforms my country needs, but I hope I live to see the day when the achievement of a fairer, more functional America becomes realistic, and with it the ability of our government to - at long last - effectively address the scourge of gun violence.

From openDemocracy

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