Disarming Youth
Joel Wallman, HFG Program Officer
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In September of 1995, the foundation brought together a group of scholars, some of whom are experts on criminal violence and some of whom study markets in illicit commodities. The aim was to consider promising policy initiatives to reduce serious youth violence, which has attained truly horrific levels in recent years. The product of that conference is Kids, Guns, and Public Policy, the Winter 1996 issue of Law and Contemporary Problems, a publication of the Duke University School of Law. The contributors who participated in the conference are Alfred Blumstein (Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University), Philip Cook (Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University), David Hemenway (Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health), David Kennedy (Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University), James Leitzel (Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University), Peter Reuter (School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland), Richard Rosenfeld (Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St.Louis), and Franklin Zimring (Earl Warren Legal Institute, University of California-Berkeley). In addition to chapters by these contributors and their co-authors, the volume contains two commissioned after the meeting, by Sam Kamin (Judicial Clerk to the Honorable D. Lowell Jensen, Federal District Court for the Northern District of California) and by Deanna Wilkinson and Jeffrey Fagan (School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University and School of Public Health, Columbia University). Philip Cook chaired the conference and edited the volume. What follows is a distillation of the considerable wisdom contained in Kids, Guns, and Public Policy.

The Facts | The widely held belief that homicide has been increasing in recent years is erroneous. The U.S. homicide rate has shown no consistent trend between the early 70s and the much celebrated downturn of the past five or so years. What did increase, however, and dramatically so, was the rate of homicide among young men, from ages 15 to 24, beginning around 1985. The size of the spike varies somewhat depending on which segment of this age range is chosen, but a conservative summary statistic is a doubling of the homicide rate for this group since 1985. (The same pattern is evident whether the focus is homicide arrests or victimization.) This development becomes even more striking when contrasted with the decline in homicide among those 24 and over during the same period. Disaggregating the figures by race yields an appalling tripling of the homicide rate among black adolescents and young men. Although youth homicide has abated somewhat as part of the recent general decline, it is still double the 1985 figure. The projection of a 20% increase in the number of teenagers over the next fifteen years has tempered, though not crushed, the optimism of scholars scrutinizing the recent drop in homicide.

The role of guns | As shocking as the youth violence epidemic is, changes in its instrumentality are even more dramatic and are key to understanding it, as discussed by Blumstein and Cork and by Zimring. For the rate of homicide by means other than firearms did not increase at all during this period--the spike is entirely the result of an increase in gun killings. Between 1984 and 1991, the number of youth gun homicides more than doubled.

It appears, then, that the increased use of guns by youth in their assaults has resulted in the sharp rise in killings by and of youths. This outcome is not surprising, given the greater intrinsic lethality of firearms compared to other weapons. It requires virtually no physical competence to deliver violence with a gun and, because of its lethality, a gun attack entails less risk of retaliation than throwing a punch or even wielding a knife. Both of these facts may make weapon use more likely in a gun bearer, especially in the adolescent male, not known for deliberation about long-term consequences of his behavior. Whether this conjecture is correct--and this is amenable to empirical study--it seems certain that the presence of guns affects the course of a confrontation independently of the predisposition for violence those involved bring to the event, as argued by Wilkinson and Fagan.

Other interpretations are possible, of course. It could be that the number of youth in possession of guns has not increased but that those who do have them have become more inclined to use them, while those with other weapons have not been affected by the same motivation to assault. That this explanation is less plausible than the one indicting an increased prevalence of guns is strongly suggested by the picture of suicide during the same period, developed by Blumstein and Cork. While non-gun suicide was level or declining for most groups, a significant increase in suicide by gun can be seen beginning around 1984 for black youth and young adults and for white youth aged 15 to 19. In other words, an increase in gun suicide, most clearly seen among blacks, accompanies that for gun homicide. The upshot of all of these statistics is that an increase in juveniles' access to guns has meant a sharp rise in violent death among American youth.

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