Behind the Gun: Ph.D. Graduate and Former Camden County Prosecutor Explores Juvenile Gun Violence

As a Camden County assistant prosecutor for 25 years, Diane Marano witnessed the devastating effects of gun violence on the city’s youth. She spent the last 21 of those years as section chief of the juvenile unit, where she gained a piercing understanding of the faces and names – and lives – behind the cold statistics.

But for all of her awareness, the 1978 graduate of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden was often left wondering, “Just what led to this?”

The Medford resident explored the critical issues surrounding juvenile gun violence as a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers–Camden. Her dissertation, “Gun Acquisition and Use by Juveniles: A Phenomenological Approach,” examines the pathways into juvenile gun acquisition, the various types of gun use, and youth involvement in illicit activities.

Through the Juvenile Justice Commission, Marano interviewed more than 20 male, juvenile gun offenders, learning firsthand how they were first exposed to guns, how and why they acquired and used firearms, and how guns made them feel.  

“I wanted to find out why gun acquisition and use was so attractive to these young men, especially with a proven history of negative outcomes, including death, injury and incarceration,” says Marano, who earned her Ph.D. in childhood studies in January, but will be participating in the May ceremonies. “It was a luxury for me to ask these questions that had been building up for over 25 years.”

Among her findings, Marano learned that most youth she spoke to were not exposed to guns in the home. Often their parents did not approve of guns, and only one juvenile recalled receiving a firearm as a gift from a parent.

Many youth recounted being exposed to firearms as the result of chance encounters. In many instances the juveniles had found guns, which held a wide range of meanings to them – including fear, fascination, or indifference – depending on the context of their overall values. For instance, one youth recalled seeing a gun when he was 12 years old. However, as a successful student and athlete, he wasn’t very interested. He then found another gun several years later, this time while he was involved in a gang and selling drugs.

“The gun was essentially the same, but his life was different, so the gun held a very different meaning for him,” explains Marano, a member of the childhood studies program’s first cohort.

With her extensive background in criminal justice, Marano says that she expected to find that youth who lived in dangerous neighborhoods needed a gun to feel safe. This proved not to be the case. Many youth did not even view their surroundings as dangerous, seeing it simply as “home,” even when drugs and violence were common. The youth instead made a clear distinction between being in and out of “the street lifestyle,” which corresponded directly to their need for a gun.

Marano acknowledges that often the juveniles shared stories that resonated with her past experiences in the court room. She recalled one such incident that took place as she sat at counsel table with a juvenile. When the sheriff came to escort him to jail, the young man turned and peeled off several dollars from a roll and handed them to his mother seated in the first row.

“That was a clear indication to me who was supporting this family,” she says. “I now have a greater understanding of the dynamics at play in situations like that.”

It is precisely this level of insight and understanding that Marano sought upon pursuing her Ph.D. in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden. As she neared retirement in 2007, she attended a kickoff event for the program, and was immediately impressed with its intensive, interdisciplinary nature.

 “It really fit my range of interests in criminology and history,” says Marano, who credits this integrative approach for not only building on her prior experience, but guiding her exploration of juvenile issues within larger historical, socioeconomic and cultural contexts.

Since graduating, Marano has remained active researching, writing, presenting, and participating in several planning initiatives for Camden County youth. She took part in a focus group with incarcerated young men at the N.J. Juvenile Justice Commission at the end of April. The group explored gaps in services for at-risk youth and those returning to their communities, in order to identify appropriate services.

In addition, Marano has presented her research at conferences and forums throughout the country, most recently presenting a paper, titled “Man of the House: The Juvenile Offender as Invisible Provider,” at the Eastern Sociological Society's annual meeting in Baltimore. She is also scheduled to present a paper, titled “A Gun is a Key to Anything you Wanna Do: Juvenile Offenders Frame their Worlds," at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in August. She hopes that, ultimately, her dissertation will produce several journal articles and a book manuscript.

Marano would also like to conduct related research on juvenile gun violence with other populations, including juveniles who have been waived up to adult court for gun offenses, as well as explore public-health initiatives aimed at helping young people after they have been the victim of shootings, such as those who are hospitalized for treatment of gunshot wounds.  She would also like to examine vulnerable children's perceptions of safety and security, such as children currently residing in shelters for victims of domestic violence. In addition, she would like to explore identity development among Native American children living in South Jersey.

Tom McLaughlin
Rutgers University–Camden
Editorial/Media Specialist
(856) 225-6545

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