Teens and Gun Violence

Teens and Gun Violence

Jeffrey Bingenheimer has always been math-oriented--so much so that he finds words uncomfortable. "To me, math and statistics is just a very clear and unambiguous language for talking about things," says the 34-year-old School of Public Health doctoral candidate in health behavior and health education.

Earlier this year, Bingenheimer put that language to work as lead author of a paper showing that exposure to gun violence doubles the chances of teens acting violently. The paper, which appeared in the May 27, 2005, issue of Science, drew international media attention, and Bingen-heimer fielded calls and e-mails from people in several continents. For a graduate student "it was a heady experience," he says.

The story begins in 1999, when Bingenheimer, then a first-year doctoral student at SPH, received a fellowship to work with Stephen Raudenbush of the Survey Research Center in the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Raudenbush, a professor of education and statistics at the UM School of Education, is head statistician for the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, a longitudinal study of more than 6,000 Chicago young people and their primary caregivers. Raudenbush and other researchers involved with the study had long wanted to use its data to analyze the impact of violence on young people, and they gave Bingenheimer the go-ahead to come up with a statistical means of doing so.

Using a method called propensity stratification, Bingenheimer and co-authors Robert Brennan and Felton Earls, both of Harvard University, where the project is based, analyzed five years of data from approximately 1,500 Chicago adolescents. The researchers wanted to find out whether there was a genuine cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to gun violence and the subsequent perpetration of violence.

The answer was yes. Bingenheimer and his colleagues found that adolescents who were exposed to firearm violence were twice as likely to perpetrate serious violence over the next two years.

"This result makes us more inclined to think about violence as a socially contagious process happening at the community level," says Bingenheimer. If violence begets more violence, as the study demonstrates, then violence prevention is not simply about preventing a single event, "but about preventing a whole chain of events."

For Bingenheimer, the study underscored the merits of Michigan's emphasis on interdisciplinary research. "In some ways, to be a doctoral student in health behavior and health education is like having a ticket to eat at the buffet which is the University of Michigan," he says. "Maybe if you're in the sociology department, you have to eat a couple of dishes at the buffet, but being in HBHE you've got the whole spread in front of you."

Bingenheimer defended his doctoral dissertation--about the spread of HIV-1 in human populations as it relates to competing risks--in May and is now a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.

The researchers wanted to find out whether there was a genuine cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to gun violence and the subsequent perpetration of violence. The answer was yes.