59% of students claim access to gun, poll says Third say guns will cut their lives short

July 20, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Guns have become so commonplace in the lives of U.S. children, a new survey says, that 59 percent of students from sixth grade through high school say they could get a handgun if they wanted one -- and a third of those say they could get one "within an hour."

The survey, released yesterday by the Chicago-based Joyce dTC Foundation, also found that 15 percent of the students said they had carried a handgun in the past 30 days.

Nine percent said they had shot a gun at someone.

"The poll shows that yesteryear's adolescent fistfight has become today's adolescent shootout," said Jay Winsten, director of Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Yesteryear's black eye and injured pride is today's gaping, 2-inch exit wound."

Guns and violence, the survey concludes, have helped create a deep pessimism among youth.

About 35 percent said they believed "my chances of living to a ripe old age will be cut short because of the threat of my being wiped out from guns."

The poll of 2,508 students in sixth through 12th grade was conducted by Louis Harris of LH Research for the Harvard School of Public Health with a grant from the Joyce Foundation. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The students came from 96 elementary, middle and senior high schools -- public, private and Catholic -- in urban, suburban and rural areas across the country.

Among the poll's findings:

* Four percent of the students say they have taken a handgun to school in the past year.

* Eleven percent say they have been shot at during the past year.

* Thirty-nine percent say they know someone who has either been killed or injured by gun fire.

* Two-thirds of students who say they could get a handgun if they wanted one say they could get one within a day. A higher proportion of private and parochial school students report knowing where to get a gun, the survey says.

* Four in 10 students say the threat of violence has made them change where they go, where they stop, where they go at night, what neighborhoods they visit and who they make friends with.

* Seven percent of students say their schools use metal detectors; 55 percent say they wish their schools had metal detectors.

Deborah Leff, the president of the Joyce Foundation, says the poll "confirmed some of the things I already knew: that gun violence doesn't affect just black urban communities but crosses all lines."

The poll shows little difference, based on geography, in students' ability to find guns. Sixty-two percent of city students say they can get a handgun if they want one -- not much higher than the 58 percent of suburban students and 56 percent of those in rural areas who say they could get handguns.

"It is simply not accurate to characterize the gun problem among young people as one that is dominantly that of central cities," the survey concludes. "Indeed, it is a pervasive problem that reaches into the suburbs in roughly equal numbers."

Ms. Leff says no similar surveys of students have been done in the past, so that there is no way to compare young Americans' attitudes on guns and violence today with students from other years.

She adds that Mr. Harris "has polled kids for years with Scholastic magazine. His perspective is that kids have no incentive to lie."

Other researchers, however, caution that surveying children is even more difficult than polling adults, with students having more problems in answering hypothetical questions reliably.

Last month, a companion survey of adults released by the Joyce Foundation found that guns had become such a hazard to children that one in five parents said he or she knew someone whose child had been shot by another child.

The Joyce Foundation paid for the surveys to provide data to refocus the gun issue as a public-health concern and not just a crime issue.

Mr. Winsten says the survey results will help in fashioning a public information campaign to combat gun violence, much like the campaign on drunk driving.

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