The following quote (Los Angeles, Reuters) was a representative reaction from the "experts" (at least as reported by the media) to the Columbine school shooting:"The biggest problem I see in this society is to have adolescents who have access to firearms. It's a lethal mixture," said Mark DeAntonio, Director of Inpatient Adolescent Services at the Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.Not only does Dr. DeAntonio state adolescent access to firearms is a problem, it is our "biggest" problem. Also, it appears not to matter what kind of access or adolescent is involved, the problem is a general one. However according to this study of children and young teenagers (6-15), controlled "access" to guns by kids is clearly not one of society's "biggest" problems. Of course guns should be kept out of the hands of young criminals just as they should be kept from the adult criminal population (see enforcing the laws we already have) and most kids and teenagers should not have unsupervised access to guns.
"The biggest difference between adolescents now and adolescents 20 years ago is the incredible access to firearms," DeAntonio said. "It's a very difficult, turbulent time and kids should not have this access to guns."
Let's put this matter in perspective:Youth violence "comprises 13% of violent crime and 8% of murder, the FBI reports,...studies by the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect show that 2,000-3,000 children and youths are murdered each year by parents or caretakers, a toll that clearly is rising. Annual surveys of high school students by Monitoring the Future Researchers report that weapons-related violence in schools is no higher today than in the 1970s. But the rate of children being murdered by their parents doubled during that time...Three of four young murder victims--90% of them under age 12 and 70% of them aged 12-17 are killed by adults, not by juveniles." (Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1998, Opinion section, page 1,"Who's Really Killing Our Kids?", Mike Males.)
Sure youth violence is a problem, but it should be quite clear now that kids having access to guns is not society's biggest problem. If you read on, as alluded to above, it's the type of kids, and type of access (illegal) that are a part of the problem. [Another big clue as to the source of many our ills, are the parents or lack thereof. All too often adult behavior is being driven by self-indulgence, feelings, and personal irresponsibility rather than by discipline, perspective, and common sense.]
Let's examine Dr. DeAntonio's next claim: "The biggest difference between adolescents now and adolescents 20 years ago is the incredible access to firearms." Another strong statement.
Obviously he implies, remarkably nothing much else has changed with kids over the last 20 years except guns are easier to obtain. Here's a change:"In 1975, according to government estimates, there were 55,000 gang members in the United States. In 1996, the U.S. Justice Department estimated there were more than 665,000 gang members and counted 31,000 street gangs, in all 50 states." (Los Angeles Daily News, June 11, 1999, page 14, "High Court tosses Chicago's gang loitering ordinance".)(U.S. population 1975: 213,124,000, 1996: 265,284,000. Source: 1994 FBI Uniform Crime Report.)
The point isn't that all youth killings are gang-related, but rather much has changed, and if anything, gun laws are more restrictive now than they were thirty years ago. Prior to the 1968 Gun Control Act, a firearm could be purchased through the mail. Even a child could purchase a rifle or shotgun this way (by lying about one's age). Virtually anyone could walk into a gun store and purchase a firearm. Nowadays you must be 18 years of age for the purchase of a shotgun or rifle and 21 to purchase a firearm other than a rifle or shotgun. Violation of these laws can include up to 10 years imprisonment (A Citizen's Guide to Federal Firearms Laws).
Guns have been far from a scarce commodity over the last thirty years. It is much more plausible that other factors are influencing adolescents to turn to violence. The essay below addresses that issue.
The following commentary is reprinted with permission from the author and The Firing Line, a publication of The California Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc.
The mass murder in Colorado is provoking a lot of questions, coming as it does on top of vaguely similar crimes over the last year and a half. In several recent incidents, the common thread was alienated kids seeking revenge for real or imagined wrongs. Most of these killers have been from broken homes.
There is nothing inevitable about these carefully planned and brutal mass murders, they seem to be a recent phenomenon in America. But why? The night of the tragedy, the noted criminologist James Fox of Northeastern University told the CBS Evening News that what has changed in recent years is access of kids to guns. Nearly everyone my age knows that this is nonsense. American children had far readier access to guns 30 years ago.
Legal access to guns has dramatically tightened in the last 30 years, as state after state has imposed legal age restrictions on transfer or possession of firearms. Before 1968, minors could (and sometimes did) buy rifles and shotguns mail order by simply lying about their age and yet these Hollywood style spectacular symptoms of uncontrollable teenage rage were unknown.
What about illegal access? If more households have guns today, then underage murderers might have easier access to guns simply because of theft (from their parents) or burglary. The number of households with guns hasn't changed much however, Gallup's 1958-1959 survey found that 49% of American homes had a gun; a 1990 University of Pittsburgh survey reported 40% of American homes had a gun. If high school mass murders have easier access to guns today, it isn't because more guns are available to steal.
I am sure the feminists will be horrified to hear this, but boys and girls are different. It may be partly cultural, but puberty is definitely when testosterone poisoning causes many boys to do stupid, aggressive, and irrational acts. (The evidence is found in the accidental death and car insurance rates for teenage boys.) I was not immune from some of this idiocy, but my father taught me from an early age that whatever my frustration might be, aggression was not the right solution.
Don't measure me for a halo; I was not all that unusual. When I was in junior high school, nearly every boy I knew had a father. While the quality of the moral lessons they taught varied, my father wasn't dramatically better than usual. My father showed me that the measure of a man was that he controlled his temper, avoided confrontations, and treated others with respect. As I was growing up, I say my father raised his voice in anger only once.
Things have changed. I realized that something had gone terribly wrong when my daughter came home in fourth grade to report that we were a "weird" family - she lived with both of her parents. (Four years later, my son made the same discovery about our family's peculiarity.) A generation of boys is now growing up in America who have limited contact with their fathers, the most important role model of what "being a man" should be. In the absence of a father (or an exceptional stepfather), boys tend to find male role models that aren't quite so socially useful: older teens, gansta rappers whose definition of masculinity revolves around sexually degrading women. Arnold Schwarznegger in his "Terminator" role (the merciless killer) also seems to be rubbing off on some boys. I notice that the kids coming from broken homes (the majority, it seems, where I live) have a rage and meanness that was rare when I was their age, 25-30 years ago. This meanness doesn't excuse mass murders seeking revenge, but it certainly suggests a cause.
There is a bumper sticker, not very popular in the county in which I live that says, "Real Men Keep Their Promises." Those promises aren't just about fidelity, commitment, and supporting your kids. They are about being there to show your son that you avoid violence when you can, defend yourself when you have no choice, and treat others with respect. A generation of boys without positive male role models, soaked in violent movies and music, with little moral guidance at home, make tragedies like the one in Colorado inevitable. Some problems can only be solved by changing the society; there is no quick fix here.
[*] Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His fifth book, Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling Southern Violence, and Moral Reform will be published by Praeger Press this year.