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Gun violence among youth


May 17, 2023 Laws and Rights


Par Chloé Robitaille


Adolescents, because of their developmental stage, are more likely than other age groups to engage in risky behaviors such as committing crimes, using drugs and alcohol, disobeying traffic laws, etc. Many of them are therefore likely to be subject to criminal charges. Many of them are therefore likely to face criminal charges.

However, the frequency of these behaviours is what allows us to distinguish between the beginning of a more significant problem and an isolated event, also called youthful errors. The vast majority of young people fall into this second category.  

Therefore, only a small number of youth appear in court on more than one occasion. In addition, the overwhelming majority of them are assigned to penalties outside the legal system. However, there is a small group of youth who will become more actively involved in delinquent behavior and may affiliate with criminal groups.  

Why has my teen decided to join a gang? 

The small minority of youth who affiliate with crime networks are responsible for the majority of crimes committed by their age group. It would therefore be wrong to believe that the increase in youth crime means that more and more youth are joining these networks. It is a phenomenon that remains marginal. Generally, before joining a gang, young people have already committed crimes. However, this affiliation leads them to commit more frequent and more severe crimes.  

Youth may join a gang or crime network for many reasons, including their need to belong. Adolescents like to be in a group that they feel is similar to them, that provides them with social support, and that allows them to discover themselves as individuals. Besides fulfilling this need, the group's criminal opportunities can also give them a sense of accomplishment, provide external validation and status, and be a source of income.   

However, youth often associate with criminal groups in response to their need for security. That is, many believe they live in a dangerous neighborhood and/or are at risk of being attacked.  

Being friends with other criminalized people makes youth feel safer.

What motivates a young person to carry a gun?  

The need for safety is also often the reason young people give for carrying a firearm. Youth associated with a gang tend to be involved in a wider range of offences such as carrying a weapon and using it in the commission of crimes such as threats or robberies. These behaviors, however, also make them more likely to be victims of armed threats from youth they are in conflict with.  

Being armed and ready to use it therefore means being ready to react when needed and having a sense of control over problematic (and dangerous) situations that may arise. These situations are trivialized and taken for granted in their world.  

Somewhat contradictorily, young people will also justify the use of a weapon in terms of their duty to be there for their friends regardless of the risk it may pose to their own safety. They put their credibility with other gang members and the respect they want to command before anything else. 

Their need to belong to their social network and the importance of protecting themselves from external sources of danger are at the heart of what motivates many young people to arm themselves.  

That said, some youth who are not associated with a criminal network may also carry a weapon, but they are less likely to use it than youth who are affiliated. For example, a youth may take a picture of himself with a gun and send it to another youth as a threat, but not actually carry out the threat.  

Again, it is often in response to their perceived need to protect themselves and to maintain a certain self-image that they acquire a weapon, whether or not they intend to use it. Possession of a weapon therefore meets the same need without being a sign of affiliation to a gang. 

What is the magic formula? 

First of all, all youth have the ability to remove themselves from criminal activity whether they are affiliated with a gang or not.  As young people age, they tend to mature and maturity can lead to a decrease in criminal behavior.  

Turning 18 and being in the adult justice system is also a deterrant, as sentences are more severe and jail time is now a possibility. Furthermore, friendships also tend to become less important in one's twenties and more important in one's family life.  

Nevertheless, a number of factors can still be worked on with young people, such as 

  • Regulating their emotions, especially in stressful situations 
  • Having plans for the future 
  • Having a legitimate job 
  • Being able to set limits  

All of these elements help young people to learn things that will help them to move away from crime. Moreover, the reasons that motivate young people to move away from criminal networks and therefore from gun violence include the possibility of losing their freedom, disappointing their families, and investing in a positive project such as education. 

Furthermore, in both their criminal and social networks, youth will be influenced by those who give them support, trust, and respect and by those who are willing to receive it from them in return.  

If we cannot significantly distance them from their criminalized peers, we can try to increase the number of positive people around them, with whom these values can be promoted. Finally, for many young people, affiliation with a gang remains a transitional experience towards adulthood. It would therefore be wrong to believe that a young person who identifies with a gang is automatically headed for a life of crime in the long run. 

References(in French) 

Revue Criminologie, Retour sur le concept de maturité dans le contexte du désistement de la délinquance durant la transition adolescence-vie adulte 

Journal du droit des jeunes, L'intervention auprès des adolescents délinquants: une douce utopie ? 

Revue de psychoéducation, Les symptômes et les troubles intériorisés chez les jeunes contrevenants associés aux gangs de rue 

Fond de recherche société et culture, Évaluer pour prévenir : les caractéristiques de la personnalité et les risques pris par les jeunes contrevenants associés aux gangs de rue 

Fond de recherche société et culture, Délinquance et gangs de rue: l'effet structurant de l'enchâssement social sur les facteurs de risque traditionnels

Directeurs de la protection de la jeunesse / directeurs provinciaux, Bilan de la DPJ 2022