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How does gun violence affect teens? Gonzaga professor co-leading new federally funded research

Angela Bruns, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga, is helping lead new federally funded research into the effects of gun violence on adolescents.  (Courtesy of Gonzaga University)
Angela Bruns, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Gonzaga, is helping lead new federally funded research into the effects of gun violence on adolescents. (Courtesy of Gonzaga University)

A Gonzaga University professor is co-leading a research project that is among the first funded by the U.S. in more than two decades to study the effects of gun violence.

Angela Bruns, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology, is a co-principal investigator alongside Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz from the University of California, Davis, evaluating the impact of gun violence on adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the project’s two-year, $600,723 research grant in September.

In December 2019, Congress approved $25 million for gun violence research. It was the first funding for that purpose to be approved by the body since 1996. The funding was split evenly between the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, according to USA Today.

The passage of the Dickey Amendment in 1996 forbade the use of CDC funding to advocate or promote gun control. Congress, meanwhile, then reallocated $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, which was what the agency invested a year prior in firearm injury research.

“Specifically, we aim to shed new light on the ways that community gun violence exposure, regardless of whether the violence was experienced firsthand, may be linked to factors that put young people at risk for negative social and health trajectories,” Kravitz-Wirtz said in a statement, “as well as to provide valuable insight for violence prevention and intervention initiatives by identifying systems of support surrounding youth that may shield them from those adverse outcomes.”

Bruns, who received her doctorate in 2017 from the University of Washington, said her prior research has focused on the health and economic consequences of adverse experiences that are disproportionately prevalent among low-income families and racial minorities.

The Gonzaga professor said she and Kravitz-Wirtz, whom Bruns described as a good friend, discussed using data from Princeton University’s Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which evaluated 4,898 children born in large cities between 1998 and 2000. Most of the children were born to unmarried mothers.

The Princeton data show the children’s proximity to deadly gun violence when the children were around 15 years old. The study links locations and dates with the children’s home and school addresses using incident-level data from the Gun Violence Archive.

While researchers were “very lucky” the data was already collected through the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Bruns said a challenge with any statistical analysis is that conclusions from observed associations – in this case, those between community gun violence and adolescent outcomes – may actually be the result of unmeasured variables that could render those conclusions moot.

Bruns said researchers have several tools to help limit this, including longitudinal data and measures pinpointing what happened with the adolescents before and after the gun violence.

“With our analysis, we’ll be able to identify individual, family, school and community-level sources of resilience that we think can then be leveraged to buffer the impacts of community violence exposure, and then ultimately to promote the tools to prevent future violence involvement,” Bruns said.

“If we can intervene with adolescents now, who are either directly or indirectly impacted by this gun violence, we’ll then prevent them later on from violent offending.”

The CDC put out a call for funding applications this past spring, Bruns said.

“All in all, gun violence research is pretty new to me,” Bruns said, “but I do think it fits pretty well with this overarching goal that I have to better understand these adverse experiences that families are having.”

Bruns said a majority of the funding will be used for research staffing. She is currently hiring an undergraduate research assistant at Gonzaga, saying she hopes researchers can release their first paper sometime this summer, with plans to present initial results at a conference in the fall.

The research comes amid a rash of recent shootings throughout Spokane, as police in the past two months responded to triple the number of shootings than those recorded over the same period in each of the past three years.

“This research is just so relevant right now. The U.S. just has a ridiculous amount of gun violence incidents in general,” Bruns said. “There’s really a growing recognition amongst scholars that in communities that are impacted by violence … that it’s not just individuals, but entire communities that are traumatized by that incident.”

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