A new report based on interviews with more than 100 young people in New York City about why they carry guns sheds rare qualitative evidence on questions about youth gun violence that researchers hope will inform public policy, Gothamist reports. The interviews for the report, “Two Battlefields: ‘Opps,’ Cops, and New York City Youth Gun Culture,” were conducted in 2020 and 2021 with participants aged 14 to 24 as a followup to an earlier project designed to find out where young people were getting their guns. The studies were funded by the Center for Justice Innovation. The respondents to the latest study had been exposed to gun violence at extremely high rates: more than three-quarters had been shot or shot at, 80% had witnessed a shooting, 89% had a friend or family member shot, and 91% perceived themselves at risk of serious physical harm.
The challenge researchers faced was earning participants' trust, said Elise White, one of the researchers. For help they turned to two natives of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who had lived through their own encounters with gun violence and the justice system. With perseverance, empathy and the promise of anonymity, the researchers were ultimately able to break through. The young people wanted to talk, and provided nuanced accounts of their biggest fears: being attacked by cops, or “opps”— members of rival gangs, people in the street economy or just random assailants. An overwhelming majority of participants said they were carrying because they were scared of what other people could do to them. “A lot of times, the portrait that people have in their minds of gun carriers is that they're just like antisocial criminals out there who have no concern for people’s life,” White said. “In fact, what we find, almost across the board, is that they're very mindful of what it means to carry a gun. They know that it's a serious thing, but they also feel like they just don't have other choices.” Said one interviewee, “I’d rather go to jail by 12 than die and get carried by six people."