Callous Kids

One aspect of inner-city violence with guns

From crime statistics and criminology studies we know that:

  • Gun violence is a huge problem in poor, inner-city neighborhoods.
  • The prime gang recruitment ages are between 14 and 19.
  • Gun carrying, almost always done illegally, is common.

An open question is “what drives these bad decisions, to associate with street gangs, acquire guns illegally, and to use them?”

Here is one element worth noting: that emotionally callous kids are more prone to gun play than others.

What is “callousness”?

Both the dictionary and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders defines this. The dictionary definition is more straightforward and says to be callous is to be “insensitive, indifferent, unsympathetic”. The DSM has a special specifier identifying people with “limited prosocial emotions”. Same thing, different wording.

A new study 1 studied if callous kids were (a) more likely to carry a gun and (b) more likely to use it. With one interest extension, the answers were “yes”.

A quick note about numbers: I won’t bore you with the statistical evaluation they did. Let’s just say that it was done and reported properly, unlike almost any gun-related study ejected from the bowels of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins (they need a colonic to unclog their research methodology ethics). My only concern with the study is that, for practical reasons, it had to be confined to three populations in different parts of the country. Yet they still tracked 1,215 youths for four years to measure if they were callous and if this made these juvenile arrestees more prone to gun stupidity later on.

Results and questions

The results showed significantly tight association for a few variables, including callousness, with both the frequency with which kids carried guns (number nuts, there were measured p-values down to 0.001). Being callous, lacking impulse control, and being exposed to violence had high scores.

However, callousness (and “lifetime offending”) alone had a significant positive correlation with both carrying and using a gun.

Hence, we have one point of proof about the “why” behind inner-city gun violence, namely that being callous hurts. The natural “how” question is “how does a kid in the inner cities become callous?”

In our blog about a different inner-city study, the authors exposed that pro-social ideation is hard to come by. Some of the combining factors include:

  • Lack of trust in the neighborhood in general (even excluding gang activity)
  • Lack of parent care and nurturing
  • Prevalence of violence and its deadening effect

To become callous – to become insensitive, indifferent, unsympathetic – is likely entirely environmental (some tiny portion of the populace may be born with defects that would organically create a callous person, but the situation in the inner cities points to the family and social environment). To oversimplify, if you are born into a welfare-dependent household, you have no resident father, your mother has issues that lead to a lack of affection and guidance, and your neighborhood is rife with violence … odds are you get callous. And, according to the numbers in this study, that means you are more likely to do dumb things with guns.

The odd exception

The authors note that “only participants low on callous-unemotional traits demonstrated increased gun carrying as a function of their peers’ gun carrying and ownership.”

In this study, there was a correlation for gun carrying between a callous youth and peers who also carried guns. This was not as statistically true for non-callous youths who had gun-toting peers. In other words, non-callous kids are less likely to stumble down the path to illegal gun ownership, carrying and criminal use.


  1. Callous-Unemotional Traits and Risk of Gun Carrying and Use During Crime; Robertson, Frick, Walker, Kemp, Ray, Thornton, Myers, Steinberg, Cauffman; American Journal of Psychiatry 177:9, September 2020

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