Do we have a problem with gun violence in this country or do we have a problem with the gun violence committed by one particular group? If you look closely at the numbers as well as the profiles of shooters, I’m not so sure that gun violence is all that difficult to figure out. Think about this: Adam Lanza was 20, Jared Loughner was 27, James Holmes was 27, Seung Hi-Cho was 23, and the granddaddy of all mass shooters, good ol’ Chuckie Whitman, was 25 when he climbed up to the top of the University of Texas Tower and blazed away until 14 people were dead.
But let’s not focus only on mass killers because headlines and public clamor to the contrary, these guys don’t add all that much carnage to the gun violence numbers that we rack up each year. In 2010, the most recent year for numbers from the FBI, the age cohort 20-29 was responsible for the commission of one-third of all homicides, no other age group by decade came even half as close. Switch perpetrators to victims and the numbers stay the same: nearly 40% of all gun-homicide victims are between 20 and 29, again more than 50% higher than any other decade age group that can be found.
It would be easy to take such numbers, align them alongside the ages of the mass shooters listed above and conclude that males between the ages of 20 and 29 have a propensity for violence that finds an outlet in the use of guns. There’s only one little problem, however, which is that this same age cohort also accounts for the largest number of fatal vehicle deaths, scoring as high a percentage of overall vehicle fatalities as is the case with guns. In 2013 there were 35,369 motor vehicle deaths and 7,563 of the victims, in other words, 21%, were between the ages of 20 and 29. The only reason that this age decade didn’t experience the same preponderance of fatalities from cars as from guns is that gun homicides and violent behavior in general fades away once we get above age 49.
Another behavior that tends to fade with age is sex and its concomitant, sexually-transmitted disease. There is very little incidence of STD in the pre-teen population for obvious reasons, with all STD cases reported prior to age 14 running around 1%. But the incidence of female STD moves quickly upward beginning at age 15, with 22% of all female gonorrhea cases occurring by age 19, but an even larger incidence (34%) between ages 20 and 24. Another female STD, chlamydia, also begins to occur after age 15, with 28% of all cases occurring up to age 19, but from 20 to 24 years old the percentage of all cases in the female population jumps to just under 40%! As for male STD, since 2008 the incidence of syphilis is twice as high in men between the ages 20 to 29 as compared to the infection rate of any other decade age group.
What these three public health issues have in common is they all result from conscious behavioral choices – carrying a gun, exceeding the speed limit, having unprotected sex – in the face of massive social and educational messaging which clearly explains the risks of each. But the age group 20-29 is not averse to risk, it’s a population which often uses risk as a determinant for what they want to do. Want to know the number one killer for ages 18-29? Unintentional injuries.
THE GVP community is united in promoting the idea that guns represent serious risk. But the age group whose behavior contributes most to excessive gun violence is a group for whom the word ‘risk’ may be exactly what attracts them to guns. In designing their messaging, GVP advocates should be sensitive to the fact that what words mean to them may have much different meanings to the audience with whom they need to connect.