In our new study, 100 young New Yorkers open up about why they carry guns. Their answers point to widespread fear, and a need for new paths to safety.
In New York City neighborhoods most affected by gun violence, young people overwhelmingly carry guns out of fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. That was the unshakable lesson that emerged from interviews we did with 103 gun-carriers, most of them young Black men, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s the first study in a unique series looking at how guns fit into the lives and cultures of young people in four American cities through candid, one-on-one conversations.
My biggest fear is somebody coming for me and they can’t get to me. They try to get to my family.
To get young people to open up about something as sensitive as their decision to carry a gun, the interviews had to be carried out by researchers with real experience in the world these young people live in. And to protect the safety and privacy of those who participated, most interviews took place in a secluded garden behind a closed-down storefront.
Virtually all of the young people who shared their perspectives had experienced, witnessed, or been threatened with violence, often on more than one occasion. The vast majority had friends or family members who had been shot. And most had come under fire themselves at some point. These experiences left a lasting impression on the young people we spoke to. They described being caught in a web of danger where the possibility of being hurt or killed—by cops or “opps” (short for “opposition”)—seemed to be just around the corner at all times. Under siege from all sides, young people turned to gun-carrying as an act of resilience.
I just see so much people get killed around here because they denied their gun. They get caught. They get gunned down, or whatever.
Circumstances outside of these young people’s control made gun-carrying feel like the only option. Only a small fraction of them had access to safe, stable jobs. Most relied on a combination of financial support from family, friends, street networks, and hustles—like drug-dealing and scams—to make ends meet. For some, gun-carrying was a way of protecting themselves from the dangers of the underground work they relied on in order to meet basic needs.
I really feel like it all boils down to poverty. I feel like if there was more opportunities to make money than the streets, people wouldn’t resort to beefing with each other, having bad attitudes, having crimes going on and resorting to gun violence.
Fearful of police and unable to rely on them for protection, many of these young people saw no other choice but to take their safety into their own hands. They talked about seeing police abuse their authority in their neighborhood, sometimes even using the same intimidation tactics as other gun-carriers. Many young people plainly saw racism at the heart of these abuses. Not only were policing and arrests unsuccessful at getting young people to stop carrying guns, but many said that fear of police was a reason they carried.
We’re viewed as Black kids, hoodlums that ain’t got no home training, and they want to put us away. To them, we are the guns. We are the weapons.
The lesson is clear: Young people in Brooklyn aren’t carrying guns because of some flaw in their character. They’re carrying guns because of social and structural realities that leave them with few other options—little access to living-wage jobs, a lack of supportive services, and law enforcement practices that threaten their safety.
Policies and strategies that aim to reduce gun violence have too often ignored the realities that young gun-carriers live on a daily basis. When we take the time to sit with these young people and actually hear what they have to say, we come away with a much more nuanced understanding of what it takes to curb gun violence.
In short, it takes policies and programs that center these young people’s experiences, social networks, and day-to-day realities. There’s both an opportunity and a need for programs to partner with respected members in the gangs, crews, and street networks that so many young gun-carriers depend on for support. These are the main sources of identity, trust, and loyalty for many young gun-carriers, and a key to changing the culture around gun use. In order to succeed, programs have to work with—not apart from—these networks, giving leaders and decision-makers a meaningful role in shaping efforts to stop gun violence.
We also need to bring well-paying, long-term job opportunities to people with criminal records, helping them break free of the economic insecurity that makes gun-carrying essential to their survival. And, most of all, we need to support young people in healing from the trauma they face—something that can only happen when programs don’t involve a police component.
If unmet needs are at the heart of why young New Yorkers choose to carry guns, then gun violence can only come to a halt when those needs are met. As one young person put it, in a word: “Safety. That’s it, just safety.”