When MaryAnn Alvarado asks her students if they know how to get a gun, their response always takes her aback. “Everyone raises their hand,” she said.
Alvarado, 36, runs Teens on Target, a program operated by YouthAlive! in Oakland, California, that trains middle- and high-schoolers to become violence prevention advocates in their own communities. For many of the teens she sees, especially those coming from underserved neighborhoods, gun violence is normalized, she explained, or they believe that stopping gun violence is impossible. Others feel like gun ownership is okay to protect their family. “I’ve heard youth say, ‘I feel like everybody owns a gun here,’” she said.
In the US, Gen Z grew up doing active shooter drills and watching school massacres and other acts of violence unfold on TV. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of them have been high-profile faces in the movement for gun reform. But at the same time, research shows many young people, like those Alvarado works with, remain open to – even interested in – gun ownership. What connects those two threads, experts say, is shared trauma and exposure to violence.
Guns are now the leading cause of death for American youth ages 24 and under, and the collective psyche of Gen Z has been reshaped as a result. A 2023 national study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Everytown for Gun Safety and American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (Peril) found that young people report feelings of anxiety, grief, loss and fear from gun violence regardless of whether they have experienced it directly or indirectly.
“We see a lot of rumination, a lot of hyper vigilance, a lot of anxiety and depression and concern around violence in public spaces,” said Pasha Dashtgard, director of research at Peril.
While one response to that sense of dread has been to join the gun violence prevention movement, another is to embrace firearms. The 2023 Peril study showed that about one-third of youth under 18 believe they are safer with guns than without them. 39% of participants reported having easy access to a gun, and about half of those answers were from young people who purchased a firearm themselves.
In another study from 2019, 42% of boys and men ages 13-21 reported they will likely own a gun in the future, while 76% of all respondents agreed that gun ownership makes a home safer. And between 2002 and 2019, rates of gun ownership among teens rose by 41%. During the pandemic, one-third of people who purchased guns were between 18 and 29 years old.
These swings coincide with rising ownership among demographics not historically linked to firearms, like women, Latinos and Asian Americans. In the latter two groups, new gun owners say that they are motivated to carry by the increased threat of racist extremism.
“Gun ownership has diversified dramatically,” said Kelly Drane, research director at Giffords Law Center in San Francisco.
For young people who are drawn to guns, geography plays a big part in how those interests manifest. In rural areas, support for the second amendment and adherence to gun-related traditions can be driving forces behind ownership. Often, younger people in those parts of the country want to own guns to hunt with or to follow in the footsteps of gun-enthusiast parents and grandparents.
But rates of gun-related deaths are on the rise in rural areas. “Young people in rural areas are particularly susceptible to using a gun for death by suicide,” said Nick Wilson, senior director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress.
Seventeen-year-old Erin DeSantis has lived her whole life in rural Pennsylvania, where guns have been a constant presence. Three years ago, she began to volunteer with the youth advocacy group Students Demand Action, and today serves on its national advisory board. But she’s not unequivocally anti-gun, and even practices sport shooting. “I wanted to make sure that rural voices were part of the conversation,” she said, “because we tend to get forgotten.”
In urban settings, high rates of gun violence are directly correlated with exposure to systemic poverty.
Growing up in south central Los Angeles, Manny Macedo heard gunshots almost nightly. “I was kind of raised to just ignore it,” he said. Now a junior at UC Berkeley, Macedo leads the university’s Students Demand Action campus group, which he hopes will help keep his siblings and other kids in urban centers safe from guns.
While Macedo steered clear of firearms, other young people in his community carried – especially those involved with gangs. That’s one of the most common routes toward youth gun ownership in underserved neighborhoods, said Fernando Rejón, executive director of the Urban Peace Institute, a Los Angeles-based violence prevention organization, as well as lack of trust in law enforcement.
For members of Gen Z in particular, social media can escalate gang conflict, leading to more gun-related deaths, Rejón explained, pointing to a recent shooting in LA’s Watts neighborhood that was exacerbated by social media posts. “Social media has become a platform to kind of disrespect and challenge other individuals or groups,” he said. “That violence can quickly manifest into reality.”
In Oakland, Alvarado, has also witnessed how social media can encourage young people to participate in gun culture. “I’ve heard youth as young as sixth grade say there’s a lot of promotion of violence on social media,” she said, pointing to videos that “glorify having weapons” and that encourage 11- and 12-year-olds to think guns are “cool”.
The notion that owning a gun can improve one’s personal or community safety is not a new one, said Peril’s Dashtgard.
“It’s paired with this masculine protector thing,” he said, recounting how one interviewee for the study explained that he keeps a gun in his truck in case he encounters a mass shooter. At the same time, myths that guns allow “the weak to stand up to the strong” are designed to appeal to women and other demographics traditionally seen as vulnerable.
While these narratives predate the internet era, they’re perpetuated online, where young people find themselves sucked into channels and chat groups that promote guns as the solution to any number of grievances. From Reddit and Discord to SnapChat and Instagram, content designed to make young people amenable to guns is ubiquitous. Youth influencers have become part of the gun industry’s strategy, as well. There’s even a gun-focused YouTube lookalike, “GunTube”, that’s dedicated strictly to promoting pro-gun videos.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers play on those narratives through youth-oriented advertising campaigns, seeing young people as an untapped consumer market, said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of Washington’s Violence Policy Center. “The gun industry is like any other industry that has a profit motive. It has a goal to sell more guns regardless of the cost,” he said.
The NRA did not respond to request for comment.
But guns do not make people or households safer, explained Nina Vinik, the founder of gun violence prevention group Project Unloaded, who hopes to snuff out protectionist falsehoods. In fact, people who own handguns are more likely than non-gun owners to be shot.
Research conducted by Project Unloaded last year found that 70% of young people believe owning a gun makes them safer, and half of young people are interested in owning a gun. But it also showed that young people are open to having discussions about gun ownership, and that they are the most likely to have their minds changed by hard evidence.
“Most Americans have bought into the myth that having a gun is going to make them safer,” said Vinik. “But for young people, that’s not a belief that is deeply held. They want to learn more and they’re interested in knowing more about the risks and responsibilities of gun use.”
Vinik and Project Unloaded launched the Snug (Safer Not Using Guns) campaign last year, which uses TikTok videos and paid influencer messaging to connect with young people.
Anvesha Guru, a 16-year-old member of Project Unloaded’s Youth Council, said that many of her peers in suburban Wisconsin come from gun-owning families, but are receptive when she talks about gun violence in a non-judgmental and non-partisan manner. “Young people have the ability to actually make an impact in gun deaths and decrease gun homicides [by] changing the narrative surrounding guns,” said Guru.
Urban violence prevention groups take a similar approach, by using community navigators or “peacemakers” to intervene in conflicts and help steer young people away from guns. In Oakland, Alvarado sends high schoolers into middle-school classrooms to recount how gun violence has impacted them personally. She explained that the technique not only empowers high schoolers, but is effective at convincing younger students, who look up to their more senior counterparts.
On top of cultural and peer interventions, researchers emphasized the need for systemic changes that can address the root causes of gun violence among young people, including mental health challenges and socio-economic inequities.
“I don’t want to disparage the work that a lot of really good organizations are doing in promoting gun safety and gun control legislation, but I really think that we should be looking further upstream,” said Dashtgard.
“How are we going to create the conditions where people feel like they live in a safe community such that they don’t need a gun to protect themselves?” he said. “It’s a complicated thing to try and accomplish. But that’s the real answer to this problem.”