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  July 1998 

Youth Attitudes Toward Guns and Violence

Overview | Article Summary | For Instructors | For Students

Shapiro, J.P., Dorman, R.L., Welker, C.J., and Clough, J.B. (1998). Youth attitudes toward guns and violence: Relations with sex, age, ethnic group, and firearm exposure. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 27, 98-108. 


Hypotheses of Aggression and Violence

A young person walks into the high school cafeteria and opens fire. Boys dressed in combat fatigues spray a schoolyard full of children and teachers with gunfire. These stories are becoming all too frequent. There are no simple explanations for aggression and violence and psychologists are struggling to understand violence among youth. 

One hypothesis of aggression is the frustration-aggression hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, aggression and violence can result from being prevented from reaching some desired goal. For example, some news reports have claimed that a recent shooting rampage resulted from being jilted by a girlfriend. Aggressive responses to frustration are common: Infants throw temper tantrums when told, "No!" Athletes scream obscenities at officials ruling foul behavior. Shoppers fight over the last remaining item at a sale. 

But frustration doesn't have to lead to aggression. Some people seem more prone to aggression than others. Aggression also runs in families. Researchers, reasoning from animal models of territorial aggression, aggression within social groups, and selective breeding for aggressive traits, argue that genetics contributes to aggression and violence. 

Another hypothesis is the observational learning hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, aggression is perpetuated by observation and modeling of aggressive behavior. Thus, children are aggressive not so much because they inherited aggression genes from their parents but because they have observed aggression and violence in their homes. 

Aggression and violence are complex behaviors and likely have complex causes. A number of researchers are trying to identify behavioral, environmental, and genetic factors related to aggression and violence. Shapiro, Dorman, Welker, and Clough (1998) developed and administered a questionnaire on attitudes toward aggression and violence in order to begin to tease apart these complex relationships. 

Overview | Article Summary | For Instructors | For Students

Article Summary

Reports of youth violence in the past few years are not simply exaggerations by hysterical new reporters -- youth violence, particularly violence involving firearms, has increased dramatically. Poverty, ethnicity, urban decay, and many other factors have been implicated in this increase in youth violence. Shapiro, Dorman, Welker, and Clough (1998) examined the relationships between gender, ethnicity, age, school system, and exposure to firearms and youths' attitudes towards guns and violence. 

Shapiro et al. (1998) wrote and tested the Attitude Towards Guns and Violence Questionnaire (AGVQ) to determine young people's attitudes about guns, violence, and interpersonal conflict. The AGVQ consists of 23 statements about some aspect of firearm ownership, interpersonal conflict, and violence, such as "I bet it would feel real cool to walk down the street with a gun in my pocket" or "The people I respect would never go around with a gun because they're against hurting people." The response options for each statement are "Agree," "Disagree," or "Not Sure." Higher scores on the AGVQ indicate a more violent attitude and lower scores indicate a less violent attitude. Participants were also asked a number of questions about exposure to firearms and violence, including whether they had been shot at, known anyone who had been shot at, owned a handgun or rifle, or wanted to own a handgun or rifle. 

Over 1000 students in grades 3 to 12 from different school districts in the midwest participated in the study. Students were from public urban or rural, Catholic parochial, or college preparatory schools. 

Shapiro first analyzed AGVQ differences as a function of the different demographic and gun exposure variables. Boys scored higher on the AGVQ than girls, there was a large jump in scores from fifth to sixth grade, African American students scored higher than Caucasian students, and students from urban schools scored higher than students from all the other schools. Most of these findings were expected; more interesting are the correlations among the different variables and attitudes towards guns and violence. 

Grade and exposure to firearms were most highly correlated with AGVQ scores. Shapiro et al. speculated about the grade effect: They argued that some combination of physiological changes and environmental changes may be responsible for the marked increase in violence-related attitude during early adolescence. Young people are beginning to enter puberty around fifth and sixth grade and hormonal changes may have some influence on the jump. As well, youth are becoming more independent at this age. Possibly an increased sense of vulnerability associated with greater independence also contributes to the increase in violence-related attitude. 

The largest effect that Shapiro et al. found, however, was the relationship between exposure to firearms and attitude toward violence. Almost two-thirds of the young people in their study knew someone who had a gun or a rifle and just under one-half of the young people had heard gun shots in the neighborhood. These exposures to firearms were greatest among the African American participants and also accounted for higher AGVQ scores. This findings indicates that exposure to firearms -- not ethnicity -- is related to attitudes toward violence. 

Shapiro et al. examined firearm exposure in three ways; they analyzed relationships between attitude and nontraumatic (familiarity with firearms) and traumatic (hearing gun shots or being shot at) exposure and gun ownership. All three types of exposure were strongly related to increased scores on the AGVQ. 

Students who were simply familiar with firearms were attracted to guns and violence. This provides some support for a modeling explanation of aggression. Young people for whom guns were part of their everyday experiences had more violence-related attitudes than young people who were not familiar with guns. As well, those young people who had experienced firearm-related trauma, such as hearing gun shots or being shot at, rather than shunning violence expressed greater violence-related attitudes. Because Shapiro et al.'s study was cross-sectional, however, we can't make any causal conclusions about the relationship between traumatic exposure to firearms and violent attitudes. 

Overview | Article Summary | For Instructors | For Students

For Instructors

Links to the Lecture

Selected Videos on Aggression and Violence: 
  • Aggression, Violence, and the Brain (PBS, 6 min.) 
  • Kids in the Crossfire: Violence in America (70 min.). Violence through the eyes of youth available from Schoolhouse Videos & More
  • Investigative Reports - Killing Culture (50 min.). Report of both sides of the gun control debate available from Schoolhouse Videos & More
Classroom Activity: Gender and Attitudes Toward Sports Aggression 

Rainey (1986) describes a classroom demonstration on attitude toward aggression. He presented descriptions of behavior from sports setting and students judged whether the behaviors were acceptable or not. The behavior descriptions considered various more-or-less aggressive acts during competitions (e.g., a football tackle that knocks the player unconscious, slamming a return in tennis, a pitcher hitting a baseball player). Rainey finds that male students tend to be more accepting of violence in sports than do female students. This activity, dealing with a slightly less charged form of aggression, is useful in pointing out gender differences and stimulating discussion about "acceptable" forms of aggression. 

    Rainey, D. W. (1986). A gender difference in acceptance of sport aggression: A classroom activity. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 138-140. 
Overview | Article Summary | For Instructors | For Students

For Students

About the Authors

Jeremy Shapiro, Rebekah Dorman, and Carolyn Welker are researchers at the Applewood Centers, a child protection and adoption agencies. Joseph Clough is from the Gun Safety Institute 

About the Journal

The Journal of Clinical Child Psychology is a publication of the Section on Clinical Child Psychology of the American Psychological Association, Division 12. 

Links to Life

Here are some statistics on youth violence from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. 

This is a megalist of resources on youth and gun violence from Join Together Online, a project of the Boston University School of Public Health, is a national resource center for communities working to reduce substance abuse and gun violence. Here is another megalist of resources including gun advocacy sites from the Violence Policy Center, a national education foundation working to reduce firearm violence. 

This is an interesting news brief from the White House outlining President Clinton's anti-gang and youth violence innitiatives. 

Peace it Together is an Internet resource dedicated to preventing youth violence. Besides providing a wealth of information about prevention programs, the site includes a web 'zine by and for youth, discussion and chat groups, and an advice column. 

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