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Young guns: an empirical study of persons who use a firearm in a suicide or a homicide
  1. Susan B Sorenson1,
  2. Richard A Berk2
  1. 1University of California, Los Angeles: School of Public Health
  2. 2Department of Statistics
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr Susan B Sorenson, University of California Los Angeles, School of Public Health, 10833 Le Conte Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1772, USA


Objectives—The purpose of this investigation was to identify population groups at highest risk of using a firearm in a fatal incident.

Setting—Los Angeles County (California, USA).

Methods—Data were gathered from vital statistics reports and law enforcement records on the characteristics of suicide victims (n = 4799) and homicide suspects (n = 5369) from 1990 through 1994. Logistic regression was used to identify characteristics of the actor/perpetrator that were associated with firearm use.

Results—Persons less than 21 years old and males were more likely to use a firearm to kill themselves or someone else. Even when their other demographic attributes and characteristics of the incident itself were taken into consideration, persons under the age of 18 were substantially more likely than those 21 or more years old to use a firearm in the commission of a homicide (adjusted odds ratio = 2.59). Asians were less likely than white people to use a firearm in the commission of a suicide, whereas black people, Hispanics, and Asians were more likely than whites to use a firearm in the commission of a homicide.

Conclusions—The US enacts and enforces some policies differentially by age. These data support the idea that such an approach may be warranted when addressing fatalities associated with the use of a firearm. Of particular interest, given minimum age requirements for firearm purchases, is the source of the weapons themselves.

  • ethnicity
  • firearms
  • homicide
  • suicide

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  • * Unintentional firearm fatalities were not examined because they constituted a small potion (3.4%) of US firearm deaths.3

  • The Los Angeles Times published a series of Pulitzer prize nominated articles on criminal homicide in December 1996. The series examined whether race, media attention, and the social class of homicide victims and defendants had any bearing on the criminal justice outcome of the cases. It also studied the role of law enforcement agencies and court houses.

    Data were gathered by interns trained by the second author and graduate student Cathie Lee. Any conflicts between documents were reconciled whenever possible. Information that seemed, on its face, to be in error was corrected by going back to original sources. Most of that legwork was done by Los Angeles Times reporters, who were familiar with the “crime beat” and experienced with the documents in question. Apparent errors or inconsistencies that later turned up during analysis of the data were addressed in much the same way. Databases were constructed and managed by Richard O'Reilly, director of computer analysis, and Sandra Poindexter, a data analyst, of the Los Angeles Times.

  • Policies with compelling justification to the contrary would include those designed to remediate past inequities (for example, affirmative action programs) or to ameliorate current circumstances (for example, food stamps and other nutritional programs for the poor).