Center For Justice Innovation report explores fear-driven gun culture among NYC youth

July 18, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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A report released by the Center for Justice Innovation on Monday uncovers intricate reasons behind why young people in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, are carrying guns.

The study — titled “‘Two Battlefields’: Opps, Cops, and NYC Youth Gun Culture” — is based on more than 100 interviews with young gun-carriers and exposes a narrative of fear and self-preservation. The participants, between 14 and 24 years old, disclose that they carry guns due to fear of violence from two groups — cops and “opps,” which refers to adversaries including rival gang members and others involved in street crime.

“For far too long, we have tried to solve the problem of gun violence without truly hearing what the young people who carry guns are telling us about their lives,” said Elise White, study author and director of action research, Center for Justice Innovation.

“In this report, our participants make it very clear that we in the professional fields have to reframe how we understand gangs and crews,” White continued. “To get at the heart of gun violence in cities, we have to start working with local street networks to address and repair the harms these young people experience every day — from each other and from society — and nurture these relationships of trust and loyalty.”

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

This report raises questions about youth gun culture and suggests possible pathways to reduce gun violence, largely influenced by the experiences and voices of the young participants themselves.

“We created a space for young people to speak honestly about why they carry and use guns. This unfiltered voice is crucial for finding real solutions to reducing gun violence,” said Basaime Spate, the study author and community research coordinator at the Center for Justice Innovation.

The study reveals startling facts about the experiences of these young people: 75% carry guns due to fear of dying, 72% fear harm to their families, 89% have had a friend or family member shot, 80% have witnessed someone get shot and 76% have themselves been shot at or shot.

Social and structural factors, like the absence of police protection and lack of economic opportunity, play a significant role in the participants’ decisions to carry guns. An alarming 35% of participants cited fear of police as a reason they carried guns.

Online social media interactions also contribute to this culture, with 85% of participants regularly seeing videos of people being harmed. The participants felt the risk of embarrassment and increased visibility from social media led to more gun involvement — to prevent being recorded in situations where they appear weak or unaware.

The report’s authors argue that addressing these issues requires the development of preventive measures and intervention programs that specifically target this population. Proposed strategies include expanding job programs, building on existing community aid systems, identifying and building trust with key community members, and designing safe spaces for candid conversation and vulnerability.

“To increase community safety and end gun violence, we need to listen to the people whose lives are most affected by guns,” said Courtney Bryan, executive director, Center for Justice Innovation.

The landmark report represents the first in a series of participatory action research studies focused on the socio-cultural roots of gun violence across four cities (Brooklyn; Wilmington, DE; Philadelphia, PA; Detroit, MI).


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