Juvenile Offenders and Guns: Voices behind Gun Violence

Author: Diane Marano
Publisher: Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 210p.
Reviewer: David Yamane | May 2017

Among the most serious questions criminologists, sociologists, epidemiologists, and public health scholars must answer is who carries and uses guns illegally and why. Addressing this question could inform public policies designed to reduce violent crime, injuries, and death. This is particularly true for African American juveniles living in high-poverty, inner-city neighborhoods where the rates of violence and victimization are astronomical compared to the general population.

No one has captured the reality of everyday criminal violence and victimization more succinctly and powerfully than Andrew Papachristos, when he describes it as “tragic, but not random” (Papachristos, et al. 2015). Adding incrementally to a fairly expansive and well-established literature, Juvenile Offenders and Guns shows the tragedy and systematic patterning of criminal gun possession and use by 25 offenders in custody at six facilities of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (see Appendix C, pp. 171-83).

The author, Diane Marano, seems particularly well-situated to analyze this topic; having spent two decades supervising the juvenile unit as an assistant prosecutor in Camden County, New Jersey, whose county seat (Camden) is notorious for its high rate of violent crime. She no doubt has extensive experience dealing with those who would later become the research subjects for her doctoral dissertation in Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden.

The strongest aspect of this book is the processual organization of the chapters and the focus on the processes at work within each chapter. Marano moves from the social milieu which makes gun possession sensible (Chapter 2), to possession itself (Chapter 3), to use (Chapter 4), and finally to repercussions (Chapter 5). In doing so, she tells an important story of the process by which the material vulnerability of being a poor, inner-city, minority youth gets translated into gun possession. This in turn facilitates the production of gun violence, mediated by involvement with drugs and gangs, but also results in greater physical vulnerability. It is a story, then, of a downward spiral of dangerous adaptations to an unfortunate social reality.

In Chapter 1, “Making Meaning from Guns,” Marano signals her intention to understand juvenile gun possession using a “phenomenological approach,” by which she means using in-depth interviews to capture her subjects’ experiences in their own terms (p. 2). In looking at gun possession and use from the perspective of the offenders themselves, she hopes to help clarify the process by which the potential for gun possession becomes a reality, and then leads to negative outcomes for both the offenders and their communities.

Central to Marano’s perspective is seeing guns as a solution to problems faced by her research subjects. As cultural objects, guns are tools that facilitate “money, protection, respect, fun, and excitement” (p. 3). The utility and versatility of guns for their possessors unquestionably makes dispossessing them of guns a challenge. Indeed, since it is already against the law for juveniles even to possess (not to mention actually use) guns, Marano’s work suggests that some policies beyond gun control laws as we know them presently will be necessary to address the issue of youth violence.

Like a good social scientist, the author’s work directs attention to “root causes” as avenues for intervention. In Chapter 2, “Consuming Violence, Constructing Masculinity,” she draws on her interviewees descriptions to paint a picture of a social world dominated by vulnerability resulting from “empty families,” an absence of both material and emotional support at home (p. 31). Among the most striking social realities affecting these youth is that 21 of the 25 respondents (84%) lived only with a female parent or guardian (17 mothers, 3 aunts, 1 grandmother). Only 3 of the 25 (12%) lived with both a mother and father (Appendix B, p. 169). When young men take to “the streets” in response, they bring the additional vulnerability of actual (rather than symbolic or structural) violence into their lives.

Readers may be struck by how similar the motivations and aspirations of these youth are to Americans generally: “money, autonomy, success, and manhood” (p. 43). Although the ends do not differ, the means certainly do, leading to choices – being drawn into street gangs and the drug game, especially – that propel them further into contexts where gun possession seems like a sensible solution to the problem of vulnerability they face.

Having placed these youth in their social milieu, Marano turns her attention in Chapter 3 to the major “Pathways to Gun Acquisition.” Her use of the plural pathways in the chapter title is a bit misleading; in fact, she finds just one major pathway. As she describes it based on her interviews with “Kevin” and “Kilal” (pseudonyms given by Marano), “being drawn in by the street’s magnetic attractions also meant being exposed to elevated levels of risk, prompting their acquisition of guns in order to survive life in the streets and avoid being ripped off” (p. 62). It is well-known from the existing literature that criminals who possess guns, and as with an increasing portion of legal gun owners as well, they say they do so for self-defense. Unlike most legal gun owners, however, criminal offenders like those studied by Marano “need” guns for self-defense because of “the lifestyle” associated with being “in the streets,” or more simply “the street lifestyle.”

Of course, it is also well-known from the existing literature that juvenile offenders rarely keep guns only for protective purposes. Rather, gun carrying is associated with “highly aggressive delinquency” (p. 65). Which takes us to Chapter 4 on “Producing Violence,” the longest chapter in the book. In its focus on the feelings and emotions her subjects associate with their acts of violence, this chapter is perhaps the most truly phenomenological in the book. At the same time Marano describes the techniques juvenile offenders use to rationalize their behavior, we also hear from them about the pleasure and excitement they derive from their violent acts. Beyond the emotional and instrumental aspects, we learn that violence can also have an expressive dimension for some.

Although the author begins her story with the material deprivation and violence experienced by these juveniles and proceeds to explain gun acquisition as an adaptation to that reality, it is important to bear in mind that these adaptations involve choices. To be sure, the choices are made under material circumstances that restrict the range of options. But Karl Marx’s (1852) observation remains true today: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In this chapter Marano highlights – drawing on Jack Katz’s (1988) formulation – the “seductions of crime.” Juvenile offenders choose the pathway to violence not because they have no other options. If that were the case, then there would be far more criminal involvement than what we observe, since most youth in these same circumstances make other choices. Indeed, Marano’s respondents observe that it is “entirely possible to live in their neighborhoods and not need a gun.” As they put it, “[i]t all depends on their lifestyle” (p. 57). Juvenile offenders choose the violent criminal path in part because being “in the streets” is a more attractive “lifestyle” to them.

The choice is not without negative repercussions, of course, prima facie evidence of which is that these youth are only available to be interviewed by Marano because they are in the custody of the juvenile justice system. Chapter 5 considers the ways in which these juvenile offenders are “Consumed by Violence,” the very violence they themselves perpetrate. It is a sad tale, but an old one as well — a modern rendering of the ancient Greek proverb: “By the sword you did your work, and by the sword you die” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1558). Beyond incarceration, negative outcomes include the threat and often the reality of being killed, shot, or otherwise victimized. In the end, what seems to these youth to be a logical adaptation to their circumstances is extremely maladaptive.

Marano concludes by summarizing her findings and also suggesting policies and interventions based on her work. As this focuses on the demand for guns more than their supply, her very broad scale (read: vague) suggestions target the root causes she identifies. As she concludes half-way through the book, “I would shift the emphasis to suggest that gun-related crime will likely decrease only when juveniles are convinced that they do not have to, or want to, embrace the street lifestyle with its attendant risks” (p. 74). If involvement in the streets is a choice driven by certain goals (especially money and dignity), broad scale changes need to take place in order to make alternative choices (e.g., jobs in the legal economy) easier to make. Notably, although “gun” is used twice in the title, the major policies and interventions offered here are much more about enabling people than about controlling guns.

As much as I like the process within process structure of the book, Marano’s integration of theory and data is unsatisfying. The introduction to the book is loaded with various theoretical perspectives, but these do not cohere in themselves or guide the argument of the book in any direct way. Instead, each chapter works inductively, beginning with the data, and then working back to various previous findings, concepts, or theories. Consequently, although dozens of other studies are invoked, they do not cumulate through the book.

Chapter 4 on “Producing Violence” is instructive here. In order to understand how and why juveniles engage in violent behavior, Marano draws on (among others): Wilkinson and Fagan, Sykes and Matza, West and Zimmerman, Hochschild, Thorne, Katz, Becker, Anderson, Bourgois, Whitehead, Messerschmidt, Chin, Shields, Jones, Noguera, Kennedy, Oswell (drawing on Lacan), and even the Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer (of whom Talcott Parsons [1937] asked fourscore years ago, “Who now reads Spencer?”). Bringing this collection of authors together with her own data and analysis leads her to conclude, “While it is undoubtedly true that juvenile gun offenders rob people because they want their money, there seems to be a lot more going on” (p. 107). This may be true, insofar as the chosen topic is complex, but it does not make for a compelling conclusion.

At times, the author seems to be throwing Jell-O at the wall and hoping something sticks. For example, she turns to functional MRI imaging research on adolescent brain development to explain juvenile offenders’ impulsive violence (p. 123-24). But the vast majority of juveniles in the offenders’ milieu do not engage in such violence, despite the fact that their brains are at a similar level of development. In offering this explanation, therefore, she does not advance her more social scientific argument that there is something specific about these youths’ social lives and experiences that explain their behavior.

In the end, little new ground is broken here conceptually. When I was an undergraduate twenty-five years ago, Martin Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) was researching and writing about gangs as “islands in the street,” helping inner-city youth compensate for family and economic deficits. Bernard Harcourt (2006) – inexcusably not cited by Marano – a decade ago published a book on The Language of the Gun based on a similar set of qualitative interviews with incarcerated youths in Arizona. And Spano and Bolland (2013), also not cited by Marano, have recently conducted some impressive quantitative analyses of gun acquisition by minority inner-city youth living in extreme poverty, which highlight both similar motivations and (crucially) the protective benefits of having a two-parent family in discouraging juvenile gun possession.

The unique contribution of this work is the in-depth interviews with the 25 juvenile offenders. Which is unfortunate because, as noted at the outset, Marano’s background makes her very uniquely suited to address her topic. She served as an assistant prosecutor in Camden for 25 years, so it stands to reason that some of her observations in this book come from that experience and not simply from her research interviews. It would be interesting to know more fully how that experience informed this work. As a revised dissertation, the overly academic stance seems to prevent Marano from adopting what could be the most interesting perspective she has to offer on the topic: lessons learned from a career in working with juvenile offenders informed by scholarly reflection on the same.

That said, this book on its face will be of interest to criminologists, criminal justice policy-makers, and citizens concerned with the harmful effects of gun violence. Juvenile offenders and guns are a dangerous combination, and understanding the roots of that attachment may suggest points of intervention. Marano’s extensive citations demonstrate that, despite repeated calls for more research on guns and gun violence, we actually know quite a lot about it already. Between the book’s rich interview data and processual organization, there is so much in Juvenile Offenders and Guns that it is impossible for a reader not to get something out of it — especially for someone with little prior knowledge of scholarship on the issue. This book provides a decent introduction to the various stages of gun acquisition and use by impoverished, inner-city, racial minority youth.


Harcourt, Bernard E. 2006. Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy. University of Chicago Press.

Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil. New York: Basic Books.

Marx, Karl. 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Retrieved on 22 December 2016 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm.

Papachristos, Andrew V., Christopher Wildeman, and Elizabeth Roberto. 2015. “Tragic, but Not Random: The Social Contagion of Nonfatal Gunshot Injuries.” Social Science & Medicine 125 (January): 139–50.

Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The Structure of Social Action. New York: Free Press.

Sanchez-Jankowski, Martin. 1991. Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spano, Richard, and John Bolland. 2013. “Disentangling the Effects of Violent Victimization, Violent Behavior, and Gun Carrying for Minority Inner-City Youth Living in Extreme Poverty.” Crime & Delinquency 59 (2): 191–213.

David Yamane is Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University. He blogs about American gun culture at gunculture2point0.com.

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