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Enlighten Me: UD professor's gun violence research expands

University of Delaware

As state and local officials continue to push for solutions to gun violence in Delaware’s largest city, researchers across the nation are trying to better understand the forces that contribute to it.

One such effort builds on research done in Wilmington, and recently received a more than one million dollar grant from The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research at the RAND Corporation, to pay for research projects in five cities across the country.

In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talks with one of the researchers leading that study, University of Delaware professor Dr. YasserPayne.

The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research at the RAND Corporation, funded by Arnold Ventures, recently announced its first round of grants for gun violence research. $10 million went to 17 projects that will investigate gun violence ranging from suicides to officer-involved shootings. 

Andrew Morral, director of the National Collaborative, says the goal of the funding is to end up informing gun policy— “to pursue a mission of funding and disseminating objective, non-partisan research on gun violence prevention and gun policy that could be used to inform policies that are fair and effective in this country. And to help policy makers understand what the likely effect of different policies are.”

Morral says the second largest grant, awarded to a project involving a University of Delaware researcher, will help answers some of the basic questions that have not been thoroughly researched due to a lack of funding. 

“We don’t know very much about how young people get their guns, what their specific motivations are for carrying, and we really gotta understand these kinds of things before we’re going to be able to have effective interventions,” he said. 

Dr. Yasser Payne — along with Dr. Elise White of the New York-based Center for Court Innovation — received $1.6 million to study the social and cultural roots of gun violence in five U.S. cities. 

Payne is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at UD. 

He has worked for years with residents of Wilmington’s Southbridge and Eastside neighborhoods to study their communities. With the new grant, he’s taking his research to other cities. 

“So we’re very interested in understanding gun violence, particularly from the perspective, the phenomenological perspective, of 16 to 24-year-olds, young people, with experiences with gun violence,” he said. “We actually want to collect 750 participants in five cities.” 

The research will be conducted in Baltimore, New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Las Vegas. It will probe several basic questions. 

“We want to understand also the culture around gun violence,” said Payne. “What gets them into it? Have a better understanding of access, like where are the guns coming from?” 

Payne says the research will also test a more controversial hypothesis. 

“We have a theory called sites of resilience which we’ve been testing done here in Wilmington and we’ll be testing in these other cities as well,” he said. “Site of resilience theory argues that street life, in this case gun violence, is a site of resilience. Now that is blasphemous in the academy and perhaps everywhere else too.”

Payne’s research uses a specific method he calls street participatory action research, or street PAR. He says he first used the method studying street communities in New York and New Jersey, and honed it in Wilmington. 

“Street participatory action research is when you take members of the population that you’re interested in studying and put them on your research team,” said Payne. “PAR is a methodology. [I] didn’t create it … and then I created street PAR because I noticed nobody was working with the guys in the streets in the way they were working with other populations.”

Payne says in the new project, he’ll recruit his team of on-the-ground researchers through existing organizations working on gun violence in the cities, such as local Cure Violence chapters. 

“So they’re already organized, they’re already ready to go, they’re already working with the shooters in their neighborhoods. And we’re going to bring the overlay, if you will, of street PAR.” 

He says the street PAR methodology empowers community research associates to take control of their own data. “We just don’t want you collecting data for the researchers in your cities or elsewhere. We want to train you to be the researchers too and show and demonstrate what you can get out of this data what everyone else is getting out of it — but now it’s your data.” 

A key element of Payne’s street PAR is helping community researchers share this data through activism, which might take the form of street art exhibitions, community barbeques or meetings with elected officials.

He says while the project aims to illuminate why young people get involved with gun violence, it will not compare participants to a ‘control group’ of people who have stayed uninvolved with guns. But they will be inquiring about how and why participants became involved with gun violence in an attempt to possibly “identify two, three or four kinds of [common] factors if you will, key experiences.” 

“We haven’t tested it yet, but, wow, every time we turn around among the more violent participants, they really had this unbelievably tough relationship [with their parents], not to mention maybe there was physical or sexual abuse,” said Payne. “So to me that is one marker that separates the shooter in most instances from the non-shooter, but we’ll learn.” 

Payne says his research could illuminate patterns with nationwide significance. 

“I do think there will be local differences that are hard to account for,” he said. “It won’t speak to causality ... but it will be generalizable, where it will be very meaningful. Strongly suggestive. We’ll begin to see trends particularly through the data across the five sites. We’ll begin to see what’s more local in terms of gun violence phenomenon, and what are the trends that are cutting across.”

The project will take three years, rolling out in New York and Baltimore first. In the meantime, a report on Payne’s current research in Wilmington’s North- and Westsides, building on previous research in Southbridge and Eastside,  is expected next year.

This story has been corrected. The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research at the RAND Corporation is funded by Arnold Ventures, not the RAND Corporation.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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