Youthful Arms Race: Lawmakers Don't Get It

It boils down to controlling guns, not locking up kids.

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As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, schoolyard brawls for me were a rite of passage of sorts, usually resulting in nothing more than a black eye. The notion that such fights would escalate to gunfire was unthinkable.

Too often for today's teenager, those rites of passage are rites of survival.

Almost half of the guns recovered at crime scenes in America's largest cities, a Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms study found, were possessed by offenders under age 25; and 13 percent by teenagers under 18.

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Nationally, FBI data show, homicides by juveniles with handguns increased four-fold between 1984 and 1994, while non-gun homicides remained the same. Put another way, the entire growth in the juvenile homicide rate during the 10-year period was handgun-related.

In 1990, one in 20 teenage students reported carrying a firearm during the previous 30 days. Teenage boys are now more likely to die from gunshot wounds than all natural causes combined.

Alfred Blustein, the Carnegie-Mellon University criminologist whose groundbreaking analysis of the data first made the connection between guns and juvenile crime, concluded that there is a virtual juvenile arms race taking place.

The arms buildup means children in our inner cities are arming themselves, not so much to cause deliberate harm but to protect themselves from other armed students.

Despite the huge contribution guns are making to the rise in violent juvenile crime, congressional juvenile crime bills are ominously silent on the gun issue. In fact, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, co-authors of the Senate's juvenile crime bill, recently defeated an amendment to require child safety locks on guns.

Someone needs to get to these politicians and tell them, "It's the guns, stupid!"

Violent juvenile crime can be deterred by gun laws that make it more difficult for the nationwide "arms race" to proliferate.

Of course, both Senate and House juvenile crime bills contain the mainstay of the extremist mood in Congress - jailing children with adults. Ironically, 94 percent of juveniles arrested in the US are nonviolent offenders, truants, or runaways, and there is no connection between how frequently a state tries juveniles in adult court and how few juvenile murders it experiences.

In 1994, for example, when Virginia tried relatively few juveniles in adult court, it still had one of the lowest rates of violent juvenile crime in the country. Conversely, New York, which probably tries more kids as adults than any other state, had the nation's highest rate of violent juvenile crime.

If our politicians think they can prevent impulsive, well-armed youngsters from committing crimes simply by threatening them with after-the-fact imprisonment, they've spent too much time in office and not enough time on the streets with our nation's children.

While Congress pursues the course of locking kids up with adults, the National Rifle Association has seen to it that lawmakers ignore a workable proposal to reduce teenagers' access to guns.

A bill by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California would impose the same production standards on guns built in the US as are imposed on imported guns - like safety standards on domestic and foreign cars.

In California, where 80 percent of the nation's cheap junk gun manufacturers are located, the Legislature sent similar sensible gun legislation last week to Gov. Pete Wilson's desk.

If he vetoes it, as he is expected to, California's bellwether effect is likely to suggest to legislators nationwide they can be lax on gun control too.

But, ironically, if Mr. Wilson does sign the law, those junk gun makers could just pick up and move to another state - unless there was federal legislation to wipe out domestic production of the poorly made handguns.

While proposals to jail children with adults have been received cooly by law enforcement officials, there is tremendous support for Senator Boxer's bill among the police. That's because they know that the cheap guns, nicknamed "Saturday Night Specials," are, according to a Sacramento State University study, 3.4 times as likely to be involved in crimes as other types of guns.

Furthermore, because they cost under $100, are widely available, and easy to conceal, such weapons are recognized as "starter" guns that initiate young people into gun possession and its attendant violence.

To take a real bite out of crime, Congress needs to stop playing up to favored constituents like the National Rifle Association and get guns out of the hands of kids.

* Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Justice Policy Institute, a public policy and research organization in Washington.

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