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CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Gun violence is an ongoing problem in the city of Chicago. Now, a new study finds 56 percent of the city’s Black and Hispanic population, and a quarter of Whites, witness a shooting by the age of 40. Researchers in the United Kingdom say residents were, on average, 14 years-old when they saw their first shooting. The findings add to growing concerns that people witnessing constant shootings may have chronic stress and other health issues related to violence.

“We expected levels of exposure to gun violence to be high, but not this high. Our findings are frankly startling and disturbing,” says Charles Lanfear, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, in a media release. “A substantial portion of Chicago’s population could be living with trauma as a result of witnessing shootings and homicides, often at a very young age.”

The findings come from a 25-year study tracking the lives of 2,418 Chicago residents from childhood and adolescence in the 1990s to middle age. The oldest study participants were born in 1981 and reached adolescence in the early-to-mid 1990s when lethal violence was at an all-time high in the U.S.

“The nineties saw a demographic bump collide with high poverty levels and rises in gang crime resulting in part from the crack epidemic,” explains Lanfear. “However, since 2016 we have seen another surge in gun violence. Rates of fatal shootings in Chicago are now higher than they ever were in the nineties.”

Person holding a handgun
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Many gun violence victims were shot as a child!

The team continued to collect information on people who moved out of the city, although most gun violence took place within Chicago. Additionally, they gathered data from locations where gun violence incidents took place up to 2021.

Among the results for high violence exposure is a high rate of getting shot. Over seven percent of Black and Hispanic Chicagoans were shot before turning 40, compared to three percent of White people. On average, these residents were struck by gunfire by age 17.

Study authors found that one of the reasons for the disparate rates of violence among races was because gun violence often took place in minority-dominated neighborhoods. The rate of shootings within a 250-meter radius from the homes of Black participants was 12 times higher than those of White participants. Hispanics were four times more likely to see nearby shootings near their homes compared to White residents.

Men were more likely than women to be involved in a violence crime, which reflects the risks of getting shot by the age of 40. The risk was five times higher among men compared to women. However, there was little difference between genders in terms of exposure to gun violence overall. Forty-three percent of women and 58 percent of men in this study witnessed someone getting shot at some point in time.

Living with the constant threat of gun violence can be stressful. The authors note the constant stress over time can take a toll on a person’s health and livelihood. Past research on long-term stress has shown it affects children’s ability to learn and also has a link to a lower life expectancy and heart disease.

While Chicago was the example for this study, it is not the only place in America experiencing the effects of increasing gun violence. The team believes these public health consequences apply to cities experiencing upticks in shootings across the U.S.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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1 Comment

  1. William Burch says:

    There’s something wrong with this study. I don’t know anyone who has witnessed a shooting in Chicago. Most of Chicago is safe. Many other major cities in the US have a much much higher violent crime rate.