The Gun Access Follies

Don't look at the guns — look at the kids.

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

9/13/00 10:20 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on juvenile gun crime.

Gun prohibitionists endlessly repeat the mantra that high rates of juvenile gun crime are due to the increased availability and lethality of firearms. This theory is dangerous. And it's nonsense.

First, mere availability of firearms does not turn juveniles into criminals. A National Institute of Justice study of tenth- and eleventh-grade boys found that one-third had "easy access" to firearms (meaning 1,200,000 boys nationally); eight percent possessed three types of guns (320,000); and two percent (80,000) carried guns all or most of the time. But the number of tenth- and eleventh-grade boys who perpetrate firearms crime is much lower than 1,200,000.

Moreover, the assumption that firearms are more available to young people is not true. Homicide by youths reached a relatively low rate in 1984-'85, then sharply rose through 1994, and has since declined significantly. Almost all of the increase, and almost all of the recent decline, was firearm related. Murders with other weapons remained stable.

As Franklin Zimring observes in his book American Youth Violence, the "proportion of homicides committed with guns did not increase among adults, so no general increase in handgun availability seems to explain the sharp increase in youth shootings."

American youths have had ready access to deadly weapons from the first day that Indian settlers crossed the Bering Strait. Easy access to firearms has been a constant since the first day that white settlers landed on the Atlantic Coast. During the nineteenth century, New York City's juvenile street gangs (e.g., the Bowery Boys, Fly Boys, Smith's Fly Gang) carried pistols — but rarely used them.

A 1958 study of youth gangs (W. Bernstein, "The Cherubs are Rumbling," in Gang Delinquency and Delinquent Subcultures, J.F. Short, Jr. ed. 1958) found that street gangs were regularly offered guns for sale by persons specializing in selling guns to such groups. A revolver could be bought for $10, an inferior gun for less. But the guns that were owned by the gangs were rarely used — and when used, they were almost exclusively used for threats, and rarely fired.

Before 1968 (a period when youth gun violence was much lower), there was no federal law (and in most states, no state law) against children buying guns in gun stores. The 1990s mark a period when legal restrictions related to youth acquisition of guns (such as laws banning even parental gifts of handguns to children, and laws requiring that guns in homes with children be secured from the children) rose to a record high; it is the same period in which youth firearms violence rose to a record high.

Firearms are hardly more lethal than in the past. Semiautomatic firearms were invented over a century ago and have been common ever since the introduction of the Colt .45 pistol in 1911. For all the excitement over 9mm semiautomatic pistols (which predate World War I), these guns remain inferior in stopping power to the venerable Colt.

Moreover, there has been an important shift in the last fifty years by American gun-owners away from rifles and shotguns, and towards handguns — at least for home protection. Rifles and shotguns are much more lethal than handguns, so the most important change in gun-owning patterns has been a trend towards less lethal firearms.

Although legal controls on firearms for adults and juveniles have increased significantly in the last thirty-five years, so has the number of guns. Gun density could be said to make guns more available to juveniles, in that more guns owned means more guns available to be stolen. Yet more guns available to be stolen surreptitiously by juveniles does not seem like a net increase in "easy access" compared with the pre-1968 ability of juveniles in most states to buy guns in gun stores.

Youths in the year 1950 had "easy access" to guns, but they committed virtually no gun crimes. Youths in 2000 face vastly more legal restrictions, and commit vastly more armed crimes. Fixating on today's imaginary "easy access" to guns is a deadly distraction from serious thought about genuine social changes that have resulted in so many more young criminals than half a century ago.

We can't even begin to answer the challenging questions about social decay over the last 50 years if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the dystopian fantasies of the gun prohibition lobby.  

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