Guns and Gun Violence in the Lives of High School Students

By Dennis Gilbert, Professor of Sociology, Hamilton College

The Hamilton College Guns and Youth Poll found that high school students are aware of handguns as a national issue and a local reality. More than 90 percent of the students interviewed said that they had seen media coverage of gun control issues. Over 80 percent indicated that they had discussed gun control in school, at home or with friends. Many reported instances of gun violence in their schools or neighborhoods -- sometimes involving friends or relatives. Almost half the students interviewed thought that it would be easy for someone their age (typically 15 to 17) to obtain a handgun in their neighborhood. About one-third knew of someone in their school who had been threatened with a gun or shot at. A quarter of students said that they or someone close to them -- like a relative or a friend -- had been "shot by a gun," outside of military combat. (The proportion rose to a startling 47 percent among students living in cities with populations over 500,000.)

A junior at an urban high school says she lost a close male friend who was shot and killed while playing basketball. A senior from a suburban high reports that her brother got in a fight and was shot in the leg. Some students reported hunting accidents; in one case, the student's brother had shot his father. A sophomore from a small town in the South described a bizarre incident in which some boys were "messing around;" one shot another "in the butt" and received a stab wound in return.

Nonetheless, most high school students regard their schools as safe and could not recall serious incidents involving guns in their schools or neighborhoods.

Support for Gun Control

Almost all the students interviewed for the Hamilton poll support four measures currently advanced by many advocates of handgun control: a five-day "cooling-off period" for gun purchases, government registration of handguns, licensing of handgun owners, and background checks for all buyers. Support for these measures, considered individually, is generally in the 90 percent range. Eighty-five percent of students favored at least three of the four measures. Less commonly heard proposals to raise the age at which a handgun can be purchased or to ban handgun possession altogether received lower levels of support.

The Hamilton researchers found that high school students are more likely to support concrete gun control proposals than the abstract idea of gun control. In the interviews, the questions on specific control measures were preceded by a general question which has been used in many national surveys of adults: "[Should] laws covering the sale of firearms be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are?" Sixty-five percent opted for stricter laws and 29 percent for the status quo. (Only 5 percent wanted to roll back current laws). Obviously, most of those who did not opt for stricter laws in the abstract favored popular measures like the waiting period and licensing.

Percent Favoring Gun Control Measures
89 Require a 5-day waiting period between the purchase and delivery of a handgun, to keep the buyer from acting on impulse against himself or others.
96 Register all handguns, at the time of purchase, so they can be traced by the police when necessary for criminal investigations.
92 Require all handgun buyers to pass a criminal background check, whether they are buying the gun from a gun dealer or a private individual, at a store or a gun show.
90 Require handgun buyers to obtain a gun owner's license before purchasing a handgun.
64 Raise the age at which someone can purchase a handgun from 18 to 21.
38 Ban the possession of handguns except by the police and other authorized personnel.
11 Ban the possession of handguns by all persons, even the police

Support for Gun Safety Legislation

Most of the high school students interviewed for the Hamilton study were also supportive of three current gun safety proposals: mandatory trigger locks, a required safety course for gun buyers, and potential criminal liability for allowing guns to fall into the hands of children. Approximately three-quarters of high school students support all three safety measures.

Gun Safety Measures
87 Require all guns sold in the U.S. to have a trigger lock, a device that prevents a gun from being fired until the device is unlocked and removed.
89 Require anyone who wants to buy a gun to first pass a safety course.
78 Hold adults criminally responsible if they fail to store a gun safely and a child harms himself or someone else with that gun.

Constitutional Rights and Gun Control

One statistic from the Hamilton poll will please advocates of gun owners rights: 81 percent of high school students believe that "the US Constitution guarantees individual citizens the right to own firearms." It is thus not surprising that these teenage respondents balk at proposals that would ban handgun possession (see above). But two-thirds of the students who say they believe there is a constitutional right to own guns, reject the idea that "laws regulating the sale and use of handguns violate the constitutional rights of gun owners." And more than 80 percent of the students interviewed agree that the "government should do everything it can to keep handguns out of the hands of criminals, even if it means that it will be harder for law-abiding citizens to purchase handguns." In short, most American high school students are convinced that gun ownership is constitutionally protected, but, at the same time, subject to reasonable regulation.

Comparisons with Adults

To allow comparisons of teen and adult attitudes on gun issues, the Hamilton Youth and Guns Poll replicated some questions from current academic and media surveys of adults. The comparisons reveal that high school students are generally more supportive of gun control than their elders. Students responding to the Hamilton survey backed the broad notion of "stricter gun laws" at the same level as adults but were significantly more likely than adults to favor specific control measures. They rejected the idea of a civilian gun ban in the same proportions as adults. But in 13 out of 14 comparisons with recent adult polls concerning the five-day waiting period, registration of handguns, background checks, licensing of handgun owners, and trigger locks, the Hamilton poll found higher levels of support for the regulation of handguns. For example, 96 percent of the students interviewed favor handgun registration, compared to 75 to 80 percent of the adults surveyed by CNN, ABC/Washington Post, and the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC).[1]

High school students are much more likely than adults (81 vs. 48 percent) to believe in a constitutional right to gun ownership.[2] But two-thirds of high school students believe that the right to ownership does not preclude handgun regulation -- a proposition supported by a slim majority of adults in an older (1993) Gallup poll. And students are more likely than adults (83 vs. 75 percent) to agree that the "government should do everything" to keep criminals from getting handguns, even if this makes it harder for "law abiding citizens" to buy them.[3]

Potential for Gun Control Activism

High school students, according to the conventional wisdom, are politically inert and indifferent. But the Hamilton poll found that a significant minority of American high school students, by their own accounts, are potential gun control activists. The Hamilton researchers asked students how likely they would be to participate in various sorts of political activities in support of stricter gun laws if they were asked to do so by a like-minded friend. Their answers suggest considerable depth of conviction on gun issues. They indicate that most students are willing to sign a gun control petition, many would participate in a protest march or demonstration, and a few are ready to volunteer several hours a week to strengthen gun laws.

Closer analysis of the responses to these questions suggests that one in three high school students has at least some potential for gun control activism; one in six has relatively high potential. The likely activists are characteristically optimistic about the ability of young people to change gun laws by organized efforts. They are also disproportionately female. For example, 18% percent offer males responding, but only seven percent of males, said they would be willing to participate in a protest action.[4]

Potential for Gun Control Activism
Action Very likely Very likely or
Somewhat likely[5]
Sign a petition 43% 69%
Attend a meeting 19% 42%
Meet with local official 24% 48%
Participate in protest 14% 33%
Volunteer 5 hours 10% 27%

The Gender Gap and Other Variations

The Hamilton Youth and Guns Poll revealed a substantial gender gap in gun attitudes among high school students. Strong majorities of both males and females support key gun control and gun safety proposals. But females are 27 percent more likely than males to favor "stricter" gun laws in general; 21 percent more likely to support all four basic gun control proposals; 11 percent more likely to support all three gun safety measures; and, judging from their expressed willingness to participate in pro-gun control activities, 22 percent more likely to become activists.[6]

This gender gap is all the more notable because there is otherwise little demographic variation. Factors such as family income, parents' education, and geography -- often powerful influences on opinion -- had only modest (sometimes statistically insignificant) effects on gun attitudes. The Hamilton researchers found that support for gun control is greater among minority students than whites; greater in suburbs and cities than in rural areas; and greater in the East and South than the Midwest and West. But these differences are minor relative to gender.

One non-demographic factor was influential: gun ownership. Respondents who said that they or someone in their household owned guns were, not surprisingly, less supportive of gun control. But even here, there was strong majority support for specific gun measures. Seventy-seven percent of students from handgun-owning households favored at least three of four basic control measures (vs. 86 percent from non-owning households).[7]

Gender Differences: 
Percent Favoring Proposal Males Females
"Stricter gun laws" 52 79
4 control measures 48 69
5-day wait 91 90
Registration 93 99
Background check 90 94
License owners 85 95
Raise purchase age 54 76 
Ban, except police 28 48
Ban for all 13 9
3 safety measures 31 42
Trigger lock 82 92
Safety course 85 95
Safe storage 72 82
"Very Likely" to...  Join protest 7 18
"Very Likely" to...  Volunteer 5 hrs. 4 14
Demographic Differences
Demographic Group % Support "Stricter Gun Laws" % Favor Four Control Measures
Males 52 48
Females 79 69
White 63 57
Black/Hisp 76 66
East 79 63
South 66 62
Midwest 60 54
West 60 58
Rural 59 49
Suburb 65 58
Urban 70 64
Family Income      
High 62 61
Middle 68 62
Low 67 61

Conducting the Youth and Guns Poll

The Hamilton College Youth and Guns Poll is the third in a series of national youth surveys conducted by Hamilton faculty and students. These studies are intended to take advantage of the academic expertise of faculty and the life experience of Hamilton students. Previous Hamilton youth polls have dealt with the plans and life values of graduating high school seniors (1998), and the racial attitudes of young adults (1999). All funding for these surveys has come from Hamilton's Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

The Youth and Guns Poll was designed and analyzed by Hamilton Sociology Professor Dennis Gilbert and his students. The study was administered by Zogby International and done in two stages. The first was a 300-call pilot survey, conducted in April 2000. Half of the calls for this stage were made by Hamilton student researchers at Zogby International facilities. On the basis of the results from the pilot study, the questionnaire was rewritten and submitted for comment to researchers at Catholic University, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and UCLA before being put in final form.[8] This redesigned questionnaire was administered to a national sample of 1,005 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors in calls made from June 2 to 5, by Zogby International.

A random sample of 1,000 is accurate within plus or minus 3 percentage points. However, obtaining a random national sample of high school students is especially difficult. Non-sampling problems, such as ambiguities in questionnaire items and less than candid responses, can also affect poll accuracy. The demographics of the second stage data suggest, however, that a representative national sample was obtained. For the analysis presented here the sample was re-weighted for parents' education, region, sex, race/ethnicity and year in school, though these adjustments had little effect on the results.

  1. These polls were conducted in April 2000 (CNN), May 2000 (ABC/Post), and Sept-Dec. 1999 (NORC).(The NORC "National Gun Policy Survey" was done in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research). Comparisons were also made with polls conducted by Gallup in May 2000 and CBS in August 1999. There was some variation in the language used by different polling organizations.
  2. The comparison is with the 1999 CBS poll, which used slightly different language. CBS referred to the "second amendment to the Constitution," while Hamilton simply asked about "the Constitution."
  3. Here the comparison involves identical language used in the 1999 NORC survey and the Hamilton poll.

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