Living with the potential for gun violence exacts a “cumulative physiological toll” on individuals in Chicago and throughout the nation, according to researchers who conducted a recent study revealing that half of Chicago’s residents had witnessed a shooting by the time they reached 40.
Spanning 25 years, the study tracked the lives of Chicagoans from their childhood and adolescence in the 1990s.
Among the 2,400+ participants, approximately 56% of Black and Hispanic residents had encountered at least one shooting by the age of 40. In contrast, about 25% of white Chicagoans had witnessed a shooting by that stage.
On average, Chicago residents first witnessed a shooting at 14 years old.
Some not only witnessed gun violence but also experienced it firsthand. More than 7% of Black and Hispanic individuals had been shot before turning 40, compared to 3% of white individuals. The average age for experiencing a shooting was 17.
The lead author of the study, Charles Lanfear from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology in the U.K., expressed surprise and concern at the significantly high levels of exposure to gun violence. He stated, “Our findings are frankly startling and disturbing,” emphasizing the trauma endured by a substantial portion of Chicago’s population due to witnessing shootings and homicides from a young age. Lanfear further highlighted the elevated risks faced by Black individuals, who often reside in contexts characterized by higher rates of gun violence, extending into middle age.
Conducted in collaboration with researchers from Harvard and Oxford Universities, the research builds upon the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) initiated by Harvard University. This long-term study has tracked the lives of thousands of children since the 1990s.
The participants were randomly selected from various Chicago districts to ensure representation across different races and levels of social advantage.
The focus of this recent research centered on data collected from 2,418 participants born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s.
The oldest participants were born in 1981 and entered adolescence during a period of peak lethal violence in the United States.
Lanfear explained that the ’90s witnessed a convergence of a demographic bump, high poverty levels, and a surge in gang crime, partially fueled by the crack epidemic. However, since 2016, there has been another upsurge in gun violence, with fatal shooting rates in Chicago surpassing previous ’90s levels.
The study also revealed that the rates of shootings within a 250-meter radius of Black participants’ homes were over 12 times higher compared to those near white participants’ homes. Similarly, the rates of shootings near Hispanic individuals’ homes were nearly four times higher than for white individuals.
Collectively, the chronic stress resulting from such experiences may have health implications for residents of Chicago and other major cities.
Lanfear highlighted existing evidence suggesting that long-term exposure to firearm violence can contribute to various negative outcomes, including lower test scores among school children and reduced life expectancy due to heart disease.
Men exhibited a significantly higher likelihood of involvement in violent crime, with the risk of being shot by the age of 40 being five times greater for men than for women.
However, the gender gap in exposure to gun violence was narrower, with 43% of women and 58% of men having witnessed someone being shot.
The findings of the study were published on May 9 in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Lanfear concluded by emphasizing that the public health consequences of residing in violent and traumatized neighborhoods will not be limited to Chicago alone but will reverberate across many cities in the United States.