Figuring Out How Youths Get Guns


STATISTICS regarding youths and guns in the United States have become all too familiar. The number of teens killed with firearms each year has climbed sharply since the mid-1980s to well over 4,000 at present.

The firearm murder rate among young black men has nearly tripled in that period. A 1993 report by the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence pointed out that if Americans were being shot to death at the rate of black youths, 260,000 would die a year.

And the incidence of gun-carrying in schools has grown in tandem with murder rates. Centers for Disease Control statistics show up to 100,000 pupils bring a gun to school.

While public officials have responded with measures from gun-control legislation to guns-for-toys exchanges, more far-reaching solutions must address how youths get guns, and what can be done to stem the flow.

Now a study by Tulane University sociologists Joseph Sheley and Duane Smith offers new data. Their report, ``Gun Acquisition and Possession in Selected Juvenile Samples,'' was recently issued by the National Institute of Justice.

``To the extent you move toward more serious juvenile offenders, it's more likely that person got the gun on the black market,'' Professor Sheley says. Guns traded on that market were often stolen in burglaries, then sold on the street. But profits are small since the supply is big. ``It's hard for an organization to move in and make a market for them,'' Sheley says.

Kids less involved in crime usually get guns from people they know, sometimes without consent. These youths typically are involved in peer disputes, Sheley says, and believe a gun gives them status and security.

For both groups, guns kept in homes become a ``major source'' of street weapons. Half the youths in the study had semiautomatics, reflecting what adults buy.

But black-market sales remain the main problem, says David Kennedy, a gun-market expert at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. ``We know that people who want guns can get them often and fast, and now kids are part of that consuming sector.'' The drug trade - particularly in crack cocaine - played a big role in expanding the illicit market in the 1980s, Mr. Kennedy says. But gun violence keeps rising as the crack trade has declined. What is happening?

For one, turf wars between youth gangs are carried out with new weapons. Almost all increases in gun deaths in Los Angeles and Chicago can be attributed to this, he says. More generally, Kennedy says, firearms violence has moved into ``a distinct second phase. It was initially caused by drugs, but now there's such a level of armament and fear that those factors by themselves are driving the gun market. Kids are getting `strapped' [carrying a gun] because they're afraid.''

A ``VERY high'' percentage of city youths know someone who carries a gun, Kennedy says, and 25 percent to 30 percent have been shot at. Many cities have gun-rental markets.

So how can the flow of guns to kids be stemmed? James Fox, dean of the school of criminal justice at Northeastern University, sees the ``juvenile arms race out there'' mainly as an oversupply problem. ``Everything we do to try to limit gun sales helps a bit,'' says Dr. Fox, since the guns that get into kids' hands were originally made and sold legally. He suggests, half-jokingly, that the government pay gunmakers not to produce.

But the black market in weapons ``will be touched no more than marginally by the gun-control bills now on the table,'' Kennedy argues. Real action must come locally, he says. He wants to see stronger efforts to keep records of legal gun transactions, including those by unmonitored state-licensed dealers. This would build a greater capacity to trace guns that end up on the black market and to prosecute illicit dealers.

Beyond that, Kennedy says policemen should be better at questioning kids about where they got a gun, and prosecutors could do more with plea bargains to get dealers to disclose customers, or vice versa. Another approach might be laws to make illicit dealers guilty for crimes committed with guns they sold, he says. The basic needs, in Kennedy's view, are better ``street intelligence'' from collaboration with neighborhoods and a commitment by law enforcement to give the illegal gun trade higher priority. ``Local authorities just haven't started to think what they can do about this,'' Kennedy says. ``They're waiting for Washington to act, but Washington won't solve it.''

Sheley is skeptical about how much could be done. ``You have to change `structures' to really get at the problem,'' and that means more economic opportunity for city youths.

Increasingly, suburban kids are carrying guns for status, Sheley says. ``But you can break it down because those [suburban] kids have a future, and they don't want a police record. I don't know what will reduce demand until you've given kids at the lower end of the spectrum a future.''

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