Gun Play

What kids don't know about guns can kill them.


"Too many kids are getting a real bang out of life," announces a full-page ad in the The New York Times. "Help Save the Next Generation." the body text elaborates: "Too many kids are becoming victims of gun violence. Every day in the United States, 14 children are killed with guns—in accidents, suicides and homicides. Hundreds more are injured—many seriously."

Beneath the main headline is a photograph of Jim Brady, the former White House press secretary who was wounded and disabled in John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan. (The ad appeared on March 30, the 12th anniversary of Hinckley's attack.) Brady's picture is flanked by quotes from urban kids discussing their fears of gun violence. The text below his picture implores Americans to support the so-called Brady Bill, which would impose a nationwide, seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. "I'm not asking you to do it for me," Brady says. "But do it for our kids."

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, Jim Brady's wife and Handgun Control's chairwoman, noted that nearly 4,000 Americans under the age of 20 had been murdered in 1991. (That number, actually closer to 3,700, covers a lot of ground. It's based on arrests, so it includes 18-year-old armed robbers shot by their victims. It also includes 19-year-old crack dealers shot by competitors.) Acting Attorney General Stewart Gerson added that the Department of Justice endorsed the Brady Bill because he was sick of seeing kids gunned down in random violence.

Neither Brady nor Gerson suggested how many lives the Brady Bill might save. Nor did they 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.

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. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), for example, says firearms are "infecting" America's schools; he has proposed the confiscation of all civilian-owned handguns. Chafee insists that America must "do something" about the current "handgun slaughter," in which "our children are being killed and are killing," for "sooner rather than later every family in the U.S. will be touched by handgun violence." His confiscation legislation won immediate support from "pro-child" lobbies such as the Children's Defense Fund and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The idea of curtailing the rights of adults to protect children is hardly new to American politics. Prohibitionists have used this tactic in arguing for bans on alcohol, marijuana, sexually explicit literature, homosexual behavior, lawn darts, and just about everything else they have ever sought to outlaw. It's precisely because such efforts have so often been successful that the talk about protecting children through gun control should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Threats to children, whether real or imagined, tend to short-circuit rational discussion. Gun-control proposals should not escape critical examination simply because their supporters paint a horrifying picture of children at risk.

America does have a serious problem with children and guns, but it's a problem quite different; from the one described by America's gun prohibitionists and their Washington allies. Indeed, it's a problem that has been aggravated by anti-gun laws.

Consider how the repressive gun laws of cities such as Chicago, Washington, 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 to shoot 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.

Research suggests that the loss of these opportunities makes a difference. In a 1991 study of 675 ninth- and 10th-graders in Rochester, New York, for example, the children who were taught about guns by their families were at no greater risk of becoming involved in crime, gangs, or drugs than children with no exposure to guns. But the children who were taught about guns by their peers were considerably more likely to be involved in various kinds of misbehavior, including gun crime. A study of whites and aborigines in northwest Australia in the late '80s yielded a similar result: Young men who were taught about guns by responsible authority figures did not commit gun crimes, even if they broke the law in other ways.

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. In cities where no child may shoot a BB gun with his parent, kids learn about firearms on the street and shoot each other with 9-mm pistols.

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 firearm 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 firearm discharges, according to the National Safety Council. That number represents a 48-percent 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 National Rifle Association, the Boy Scouts, 4-H, 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 firearm accidents. A 1991 study by the General Accounting Office found that 84 percent 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." Although Eddie Eagle includes no political content, some anti- gun activists have prevented the program from being used in their schools because they disagree with the NRA's position on policy issues. (Riflery programs in high schools, which also teach safe gun habits, have generated even more resistance.)

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 remained stable, 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 committee 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. While teenage suicide has remained stable in the United States in the last 15 years, it has risen sharply in Europe, where gun control is much stricter. In Great Britain, where gun laws are very strict and the gun ownership rate is less than one-tenth that in the United States, adolescent suicide has risen by more than 25 percent in just five years. Similarly, in Japan handguns and rifles are illegal and shotguns very difficult to obtain. Yet teenage suicide is 30-percent more frequent in Japan than in the United States.

Given the lack of evidence that gun control reduces suicide, anti-gun activists have resorted to factoids such as this one, reported by Washington Post columnist Richard Reeves last September: "Teen-agers in homes with guns are 75 times more likely to kill themselves than teen-agers living in homes without guns." The story behind this factoid 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 western 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 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 was incorrect; the increase was in fact twofold (and the number was merely a correlation, not proof of cause). Sen. Chafee saw the false claim but apparently missed the correction, since he repeated the 75-fold figure in a congressional hearing in October 1992. In his Washington Post 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. Chafee and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) claim that "135,000 children carry a gun to school every day." Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) 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 a 1990 survey by the Centers for Disease Control that asked high-school students if they carried a gun for protection. As a 1991 summary of the survey explained, "Students were not asked if they carried weapons onto school grounds." Students who answered yes included all those who occasionally carried guns anywhere, such as in cars when driving at night in dangerous neighborhoods.

Interpreting the data realistically, Kleck, the FSU criminologist, estimates that 16,000 to 17,000 students carry a gun to school on a given day. That figure translates into about 1 in every 800 high-school students. Accordingly, guns play a relatively small role in the overall problem of violence in school. In 1986, for example, there were 41,500 aggravated assaults in schools and 44,000 robberies. Firearms were used in 1,700 of these crimes, a little under 2 percent. (They accounted for 15 deaths and 95 injuries in 1992, according to the National School Safety Center.) Thus, even a program that eliminated all guns would fail to deal with 98 percent of the violent felonies in schools.

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 feet of school property a felony. Since the 1,000-foot 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. In cities such as Los Angeles and New York, police administrators routinely turn down applications from private citizens seeking permits to carry a handgun for self-defense. About 7 percent of the population carries guns anyway, figuring that it is better to risk prosecution than to risk driving or walking in dangerous neighborhoods without protection. The crime of carrying without a permit is a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions, but gun-free school zones can turn it into a serious felony.

Even when narrowly drafted, school-zone 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. "To put it bluntly," one student wrote in a recent letter to The Washington Post, "I think students bring weapons to school to save their own lives. They have a constant fear of being attacked, whether for money, for drugs, or for some other reason." 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 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 percent, of 16-year-olds by 158 percent, of 15-year-olds by 217 percent, and of boys 12 an under by 100 percent.

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 United States, 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 pattern 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 George Bush's 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 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 percent 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 percent 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."

David B. Kopel is director of the Second Amendment Project at the Independence Institute, a free-market public-policy research center in Denver, Colorado.