Disarming Youth
Joel Wallman, HFG Program Officer
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The Explanation

Crack | What else was occurring in the United States in the middle of the 1980s that might have engendered the increase in youth homicide? In short, crack. The cheap, smokable form of cocaine appeared in the major cities around 1983 and in others over the next decade. Its low price made crack available to millions of people who couldn't afford the powdered original and whose life prospects made the attendant risks seem relatively insignificant. The small quantity involved in each purchase meant that the number of transactions constituting the market in crack was enormous, entailing the recruitment of many thousands of low-level employees. The labor pool for street merchants of crack, as for its consumers, was the huge number of unemployed or marginally employed people, especially boys and young men, living in the economically distressed and minority-predominant inner cities (formerly known as "ghettos") of the U.S. Thus the trend line for drug arrests of non-white juveniles shows a marked upturn around 1985, coincident with the burgeoning of crack consumption.

Violence is associated with several illicit markets, including that for drugs. Violence--or its threat--is used to enforce contract disputes, which cannot be settled through legal institutions, to steal product and cash from dealers, and to defend against the latter danger. Firearms, of course, and handguns especially, offer the greatest threat in a weapon of practicable size. Indeed, it is in the interests of drug dealers to require their street-level employees to go armed. Surveys and ethnographic research indicate that young men derive both a sense of physical security and a feeling of prowess from gun carrying. Our inner cities provided an effectively boundless pool of customers for crack and also of young men desirous of the money to be made in selling it and willing to deploy violence in the process.

Diffusion and decoupling | This picture is incomplete, however. Several surveys of students in inner-city schools reveal that the number who carry or have carried a gun is far greater than the number of young people who could possibly be involved in the crack trade. Hemenway and colleagues surveyed 7th and 10th graders in two large inner-city areas. Nearly 30% of the 10th-grade boys and 23% of the 7th-grade boys reported having carried a gun. And these figures are surely underestimates, as the children not attending school and therefore not canvassed in such surveys are even more likely to carry than those in school.

The violence inherent in the crack trade appears to have diffused outward to young people who, although not part of the business themselves, have been sufficiently influenced by participants, either through fear or emulation, to arm themselves. Survey results corroborate this interpretation. Hemenway's is representative of other surveys in finding that the great majority of youth who have carried a gun cite fear of other armed youth as their primary motivation for doing so. (The interviews conducted by Wilkinson and Fagan with young ex-convicts reveal that the "self-defense" frequently invoked as a reason for carrying, however, covers an array of senses of that term, from physical self-protection to defense of one's honor.)

Two other facts about youth homicide lend support to the notion that gun carrying has become decoupled from the crack business. First, the homicide rate among white youth, though always much lower than that of their black agemates, saw the same upswing in trajectory but three years later (1988), an expectable delay if the trend spread outward from inner cities. Second, decoupling is clearly evident in the persistence of the elevated rate of killing despite the decline in the crack trade since the early 90s.

The Solutions? | Violent crime rates among blacks and poor Hispanics in the U.S., especially the young, have always been higher than the national average. Until the life prospects of people in these populations attain parity with the rest of the country, we should not expect the difference to disappear. The amplitude of the recent spike in juvenile killing is surprising, but which groups it has affected most is not. Nor should we expect those youth to disarm who live in better circumstances but have been motivated to take up guns by fear or a status premium on the appearance of formidability. A pragmatic, near-term strategy, given the picture presented in Kids, Guns, and Public Policy, is to reduce the availability of firearms to youth.

In considering the prospects for doing so, it is useful to apply a distinction between the formal and informal markets for firearms, drawn by Cook and Leitzel. Virtually all new firearms enter circulation through licensed gun dealers, or federal firearms licensees ("FFL"s). Sales by FFLs that conform to federal, state, and local laws constitute the formal market in guns. The informal market includes transactions that aren't controlled by these regulations: illegal sales by FFLs (e.g., to juveniles or felons), legal and illegal sales by non-dealers, and gun thefts.

Formal-market approaches | It is against federal law to sell any kind of firearm to a minor and for a minor to possess a handgun. For this reason, the great majority of guns in the hands of youths are derived from the informal market rather than through purchase by the youths from FFLs. The same applies to felons. It is estimated that 80% of guns used in crime were not purchased by the perpetrator from a licensed dealer. However, there are at least three reasons not to conclude from these facts that efforts to reduce youth access to guns through regulation of the formal market are misdirected.

First, many people who are barred from possessing firearms nonetheless try to acquire them from FFLs, and regulations, though far from perfectly effective, prevent many such purchases. The Brady Act, which requires FFLs to request background checks on all customers wishing to buy a handgun, became effective in February of 1994. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that, from the implementation of the act through June of 1996, 186,000 firearm purchases were blocked when background checks revealed that the applicant was of a prohibited category (e.g., felon, fugitive, mentally ill, underage).

Second, FFLs are not equally scrupulous in observing the regulations that are supposed to govern their operation. In the generally relaxed federal regulatory atmosphere of the 1980s, FFLs proliferated, becoming more numerous than gas stations. The Clinton administration directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to get serious about its oversight responsibility. Apparently as a result of increased BATF scrutiny of current and prospective dealers and an increase in the license fee for the first three years from $30 to $200, as required by the Brady Act, the number of FFLs has declined by nearly half. It is likely that the prospective dealers who are being deterred from applying or rejected and current dealers who decline to re-apply or are rejected are not a representative sample. Rather, they would consist disproportionately of those wanting the license not for dealing but to procure mail order arms for themselves and of the scofflaws among dealers, i.e., those who are negligent about the rules. And it is clear that a small number of dealers are the source, whether wittingly or not, of a large fraction of guns used in crime: half of all BATF traces of crime guns (via serial numbers) lead back to less than 1/2 of 1% of all FFLs. In many cases, there is no ambiguity about an FFL's knowledge of its contribution to illegal gun possession: Until he was caught, Jack Haynes, a dealer in Tennessee, distributed over 15,000 guns each year, altering serial numbers and otherwise foiling the safeguards intended to make possible the tracing of guns used in crime. It is clear, then, that vigorous enforcement of laws governing firearms sales can limit the diversion of guns from the formal market into the hands of youths.

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