A longer version on the same topic is available.
Too Many Kids Are Getting A Real Bang Out of Life," announces a full-page ad in The New York Times--"Help Save The Next Generation."
The ad, purchased by Handgun Control Inc., reflects the theme of the organization's latest push for the Brady bill. In a February press conference, Sarah Brady,Handgun Control's chairwoman, noted that nearly 4,000 Americans under the age of 20 had been murdered in 1991. (That number, actually under 3,800, covers a lot of ground. It includes abused children beaten to death, 18-year-old armed robbers shot by their victims. It also includes 19-year-old crack dealers shot by competitors.)
Brady did not suggest how many lives the Brady bill might save. Nor did she cite studies showing how similar laws, enacted by more than 20 states, have reduced crime. That's because there are no such studies. All the scholarly research has found that laws like the Brady bill have no statistically significant impact on crime.
Consider how the repressive gun laws of cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York drive responsible gun use underground. While a man who operates a bodega on the Lower East Side of New York City may keep an illegal pistol hidden under the counter in case of a robbery, he is not likely to take the gun to a target range for practice.Even if the storekeeper managed to get a gun license, he could not take his teenage son to a target range to teach him responsible firearm use. Just to hold the gun in his hand under immediate adult supervision at a licensed range, the teenager would have to obtain his own permit.
An airgun, which uses compressed air or carbon dioxide to propel a pellet, is safe enough to fire inside an apartment, yet New York City makes it illegal for supervised minors to touch one. The city thus closes off one more avenue for children to be taught proper firearm use and safety.
But the whole idea of asking people to "do it for our kids" is to
avoid such analysis. Gun control advocates are hammering at the issue of
children and guns as never before, in the hope that it will be easier to enact
gun controls aimed at adults in an atmosphere of panic about children.
America does have a serious problem with children and guns, but it's a problem quite different from the one described by American's gun prohibitionists and their Washington allies. Indeed, it's a problem that has been aggravated by anti-gun laws.
In this light, repressive gun laws are not merely ineffective. They
actually foster misuse of firearms, including gun violence. By making firearm
ownership illegal, or possible only for wealthy people with the clout to move
through numerous bureaucratic obstacles, anti-gun laws render legitimate gun
owners invisible. Children are left with criminals and violent television
characters as their only models of gun use.
The experience with gun accidents shows the importance of teaching our children about proper firearm use. Gun control advocates have sought to create the impression that firean-n accidents involving children are a large and growing problem. Paradoxically, this impression has been reinforced by the very fact that such accidents are rare.
Almost every time a child dies in a gun accident, the event is covered by the state's wire services, and sometimes by the national news. Many people mistakenly conclude that children die frequently in gun accidents and that sharp restrictions on gun ownership are necessary to address the problem. But gun accidents involving both children and adults have actually fallen dramatically in the last two decades, almost entirely because of private safety efforts.
In 1988, 277 children under the age of 15 were killed by accidental firearms discharges, according to the most recent figures from the National Safety Council. That number represents a 48% drop from 1974, even as the number of guns per capita increased. From 1968 to 1988, the annual rate of fatal gun accidents fell from 1.2 per 100,000 Americans to 0.6. Thanks to private educational efforts, including programs sponsored by the NRA, the Boy Scouts, 4H and other groups, the firearm accident rate has been cut in half.
Despite this impressive private-sector achievement, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) thinks that the government could do better. He proposes giving the Consumer Product Safety Commission authority over firearms, ostensibly to reduce accidents. This move could be an indirect way to achieve gun controls far more sweeping and restrictive than Congress is likely to pass. With jurisdiction over firearms, the CPSC could, by unilateral administrative action, ban the future production and sale of all firearms and ammunition. Congress has forbidden the CPSC to regulate guns precisely because of such fears.
Short of banning firearms, the CPSC might require features intended to prevent accidents, such as child-proof grips or indicators that show when a gun is loaded. But such technological fixes, favorites of the gun control lobby, do not address the main cause of firearin accidents.
A 1991 study by the General Accounting Office found that 84% of gun accidents involve deviations from basic safety rules. For example, accidents occur when people carelessly wave a gun around, thinking it's unloaded, or put their fingers on the trigger prematurely. Safety education is therefore the best way to continue reducing gun accidents. Unfortunately, children whose parents have no interest in firearms are unlikely to hear gun lessons. Firearm safety programs ought to be expanded to reach more children.
One successful effort to teach children about gun safety is the NRA's "Eddie Eagle" Elementary Gun Safety Education Program. The Eddie Eagle program offers curricula for children from kindergarten through sixth grade, using an animated video, cartoon workbooks, and play safety activities. The cartoon hero Eddie Eagle offers a simple safety lesson: "If you see a gun: Stop! Don't Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult."
While schools and other social institutions have an important role to play in gun safety, the primary responsibility rests with parents. A child who can, under parental supervision, invite a classmate to shoot a .22 rifle at a target range will be less intrigued by the possibility of surreptitiously playing with a pistol found in a closet.
In contrast to gun accidents, gun suicides do account for the deaths of many young people--more than 2,000 in 1990. From the mid- 1950s to the late '70s, teenage suicide rose sharply, and most of the increase was due to gun suicides. But since then, the teenage suicide rate has risen slowly, and so has the percentage of suicides involving guns. Teenagers are still less likely to commit suicide than any older age group.
Although the teenage suicide rate has been about the same since the late '70s, gun control advocates insist that immediate action is necessary to address this "crisis" as well. They often cite false statistics to justify their sense of urgency. In 1989, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics told a congressional conunittee that "every three hours, a teenager commits suicide with a handgun." But this figure is valid only if one counts all suicides as handgun suicides, or if one calls every person under 25 a teenager.
In addition to exaggerating the extent of the problem, gun control supporters simply assume that fewer firearms would mean fewer suicides. One might speculate that the presence of a gun can turn a teenager's fleeting impulse into an irrevocable decision. If guns were less readily available, perhaps suicide would decline. This theory is intuitively plausible, but it is not consistent with the evidence.
In his 1991 book Point Blank, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck analyzes suicide rates and gun laws in every American city with a population over 100,000. He takes into account all the factors that might affect suicide, such as race (whites are more likely to commit suicide), religion (Catholics are less likely), economic circumstances and 19 gun control laws, ranging from waiting periods to handgun bans.
Kleck finds no evidence that any of the gun control laws had a statistically significant effect on suicide rates. While some gun control laws did affect the rate of gun suicide, the total suicide rate remained the same. People who had decided to kill themselves simply substituted other, equally lethal, methods.
Data from other countries appear to support Kleck's conclusion that gun control is not an effective way to reduce suicide. In Great Britain, where gun laws are very strict and the gun ownership rate is less than one-tenth that in the U. S., adolescent suicide rose by more than 70% in the 1980s. Similarly, in Japan handguns and rifles are illegal and shotguns very difficult to obtain. Yet teenage suicide is 30% more frequent in Japan than in the U.S.
Given the lack of evidence that gun control reduces suicide, anti-gun activists have resorted to "factoids" such as this one, reported by syndicated columnist Richard Reeves last September: "Teen-agers in homes with guns are 75 times more likely to kill themselves than teenagers living in homes without guns." The story behind this claim illustrates how myths that support gun control are generated.
A 1991 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed a study of several dozen homes in westem Pennsylvania where a teenager had committed or attempted suicide or where a non-suicidal teenager who had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital lived. A home with a teenager who had committed suicide was twice as likely as the other homes to contain a gun.
In an editorial accompanying the article, three employees of the federal Centers for Disease Control incorrectly wrote: "The odds that potential suicidal adolescents will kill themselves go up 75-fold when a gun is kept in the home."
JAMA later published a retraction, noting that the 75-fold figure was incorrect; the increase was in fact twofold (and the number was merely a correlation, not proof of cause).
In his column, Reeves took the factoid one step further, telling his readers that it applied to all teenagers, even though all of the subjects in the study had serious psychological problems.
Factoids also play an important role in the debate about guns in school. Sen. John Chafee (R-Rhode Island) and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) claim that "135,000 children carry a gun to school every day." Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) ups the figure to 186,000. The National Education Association puts the number at 100,000.
The only comprehensive data on this question come from 1990 and 1991 surveys by the Centers for Disease Control that asked students if they had carried guns for protection during the preceeding 30 days. Students who answered yes included all those who occasionally carried guns anywhere, such as in cars when driving at night in dangerous neighborhoods, and most who carried did so infrequently.
Interpreting the data realistically, Kleck, the FSU criminologist, estimates that one in every 800 high school students, which works out to 16,000 to 17,000 students nationally, carry a gun to school on a given day. Accordingly, guns play a relatively small role in the overall problem of violence in school.
Rather than address the real problem of discipline and security in many public schools, gun control advocates have argued for "gun-free school zones," which make possession of weapons within 1,000 ft. of school property a felony. Since the 1,000-ft. school zone encompasses over half the territory in most cities and towns, the school zone laws are frequently a backhanded way to outlaw the possession of firearms by adults on public property.
These laws can add to the regulatory obstacles that discourage people from using guns for protection. The crime of carrying without a permit is a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions, but gun-free school zones can tum it into a serious felony.
Even when narrowly drafted, schoolzone laws are misguided. A comparison of the number of students carrying guns in school to the number of gun crimes committed in school indicates that the vast majority of students who carry firearms do so for noncriminal purposes.
Most students who carry guns are trying to protect themselves on the way to and from school, as they pass through neighborhoods ruled by gangs, or in school itself. To focus on "guns in school" is to miss the larger picture of the violent conditions that make unarmed teenagers feel they are vulnerable.
While the claims of gun control advocates about a rising tide of gun accidents and gun suicides are false, there is no doubt that violent crime among teenagers is soaring. From 1985 to 1991, arrests of adults for murder declined, but arrests for murder of 17-year-old males rose by 121%, of 16-year-olds by 158%, of 15-year-olds by 217%, and of boys 12 and under by 100%.
Those figures conceal an even more serious problem. The murder arrest rate of whites between the ages of 10 and 17 was the same in 1989 as in 1980 (it dipped in the middle of the decade and then rose to its former level). Meanwhile, the black rate has skyrocketed.
Most of these homicides are carried out with handguns. Yet, if there is a relationship between gun density and homicide in the U.S., it is an inverse one. The regions with the most guns are the regions with the lowest homicide rates. And while whites have a higher rate of gun ownership than blacks, they have a much lower homicide rate.
One possible explanation for this pattem is that widespread gun ownership deters crime. But it may also be significant that the places with the highest rates of gun ownership tend to be rural areas and small towns, where family structures are relatively strong and communities are often more stable and unified. The problem of violence in American inner cities may have less to do with the fact that guns are available there (as they are everywhere else) than with the fact that so many families are weak or nonexistent and that so little sense of community exists.
The sharp increase in teenage violence that began in 1987 may also be related to the escalation of the war on drugs. The drug war has intensified violent competition among drug dealers. It has also crowded prisons with drug offenders, making significant punishment of crimes against people and property less likely and deterrence less credible.
Texas A&M economist Dr. Morgan Reynolds found that, largely because of inadequate prison space, the expected punishment for murder (the average sentence multiplied by the probability of punishment) fell by 20% from 1988 to 1990. In 1990 the average murderer could expect to spend 1.8 years in prison. A society that treats violent crime so lightly sends the message to young criminals that they can literally get away with murder.
In addition to improving the criminal justice system, we need to reconsider our legal approach to firearms. Gun control laws are undermining responsible gun use in a futile attempt to eliminate the tools of crime. In a 1992 survey of young violent criminals from Washington, D.C., 77% of the respondents said they had acquired a handgun in the District, where handguns are illegal. Two out of three agreed that gun control would not reduce violence in Washington.
As William Fox, a former member of the Brawling Street Rolling Crips, told the Los Angeles Times: "How are you going to get the guns off the street that are already there? No. It ain't going to change. It's not the guns that have to change, It's the people that have to change."
Dave Kopel's article is adapted from his 89-page monograph, "Children And Guns: Sensible Solutions," available for $12 from the Independence Institute,
A longer version on the same topic is available.