image of a gun and bullets on a table
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CDC Awards Psychologist Paul Boxer Grant to Study Links Between Violence Exposure and Weapons Use

The CDC recently announced the winners of their Research Grants to Prevent Firearm-Related Violence and Injuries, including a collaborative project from researchers at Rutgers University-Newark, the University of Michigan, and Bowling Green State University. According to the CDC website, the grants are intended to fund “research to help inform the development of innovative and promising opportunities to enhance safety and prevent firearm-related injuries, deaths, and crime.” Paul Boxer, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University-Newark, is one of the lead investigators on the funded project. Boxer has been studying the impact of violence on child and adolescent development in urban communities for almost 20 years. 

Paul Boxer
Paul Boxer. Photo by Karina Nunez 

“This grant is essentially an extension and expansion of a study that my colleagues and I have been conducting over the last several years to investigate the precursors of gun violence with funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development,” said Boxer. “Our new grant will permit us synthesize all of our data across two sites and implement some very state-of-the-art new analytic approaches.” 

The grant for the project, "Exposure to Violence and Subsequent Weapons Use: Integrative Data Analysis Across Two Urban High-Risk Communities”, will allow the researchers to use sophisticated data analysis strategies to combine separate sets of data collected over 4 years in Jersey City, NJ, and over 15 years in Flint, MI, and analyze them to examine how individual, family, and neighborhood risk factors for gun violence affect the development of violence- and weapons-related opinions and behaviors from middle childhood into into early adulthood. 

The project is a collaboration between Boxer and his colleagues L. Rowell Huesmann, Tversky Professor of Communication Studies and Psychology, and Senior Research Professor in the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; Eric Dubow, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at Bowling Green State University and Research Professor at University of Michigan; and Meagan Docherty, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Bowling Green State University and Assistant Research Professor at University of Michigan.  

Docherty, who received her PhD in Psychology under Boxer’s supervision from Rutgers University-Newark in 2017, said “I became involved in this area of research working with Dr. Boxer on my PhD. I think this research is important because it furthers our understanding of the experiences of youth growing up in cities, and how these experiences shape their behavior and development.” 

The firearm death rate in the United States is typically the highest among western industrialized nations, with 21,789 intentional violence-related firearm deaths in 2017, one third of whom are in the 15-29 year-old age range, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).   

In the project abstract, the researchers assert that firearm violence in the United States is a serious public health concern, and the rates are much higher among African American and Hispanic youth compared to White youth. “This study will conduct integrative data analyses using data from two longitudinal studies on youth exposure to violence and subsequent weapons use in urban areas at high risk for gun violence. The analysis will examine how risk factors for gun violence at multiple levels of the social ecology (including self-report and geospatial crime coding of gun violence and other characteristics at the neighborhood level) affect the development of violence-related and weapons-related social cognitions that shape use of guns and other weapons into early adulthood. The findings are expected to have implications for enhancing the impact of community- and school-based prevention programs targeting firearm violence specifically and youth violence more generally.” 

Our findings can inform the development of multi-layered community interventions to reduce gun violence among urban youth.

The grant will allow the researchers to combine data across two studies and analyze them to assess patterns of exposure to violent behavior with weapons (in the neighborhood, family, and violent media); investigate how attitudes about violence and weapon use mediate the relation between exposure to weapon violence and subsequent engagement in weapon violence over time; and investigate how personal risk and protective factors (e.g., cognitive achievement, emotional reactivity to violence) and family or extra-familial factors such as parenting or neighborhood qualities might moderate these relations.  

Boxer hopes that the project can highlight what interventions are most likely to be successful and better coordinate existing school and neighborhood programs. “Our findings can inform the development of multi-layered community interventions to reduce gun violence among urban youth,” he said. “We expect that the findings will have substantial implication for enhancing the impact of community- and school-based prevention programs targeting firearms violence specifically and youth violence more generally.” 

Docherty expressed the same sentiment, saying “I think it would be great if our findings could inform potential prevention and intervention efforts, to hopefully prevent youth violence exposure and improve outcomes for those who are exposed to violence in their families and communities. I would also like to see it help reduce health disparities by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, given that some youth are disproportionately affected by weapons-related violence.” 

The award will fund the project for two years, from September 30, 2020 through September 29, 2022 with $349,846 awarded for the first year, and an expected total of $700K over two years.