Disarming Youth
Joel Wallman, HFG Program Officer
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The third reason not to dismiss the potential of formal market regulation for reducing firearm possession by youth is that a number of conceivable regulatory tactics can be predicted, on simple economic principles, to pass through to the informal market. Any intervention that had the effect of raising the price of a gun purchased from a licensed dealer could be expected to reduce sales in this, the formal, market, increase demand and hence price in the informal market, and reduce supply in the informal, further increasing price there. It is reasonable to expect that youth, whose economic means are relatively limited, would be the most affected in their gun-possession decisions by such price changes. As prices increased in the only market where they can readily buy a gun, they would likely be slower to buy, quicker to cash in the value of a gun by selling, and perhaps less inclined to carry an object always at risk of theft or confiscation and now more valuable. A number of related arguments are developed by Cook and Leitzel.

Informal-market approaches | What are the prospects for intervening directly in the informal market, which is, again, the immediate source of most guns acquired by youth? Interviews with convicts, school surveys, and ethnographic work with gang members indicate that theft is a major source of guns for youth and felons. Beyond encouraging private gun owners and dealers with shops to increase the security of their storage, there are not a lot of promising policy changes that would narrow this conduit in the informal market. To the extent that the preferences of the Boston gang members interviewed by Kennedy and his colleagues can be generalized, youths desire new, semiautomatic handguns, which are not a reliable take in home burglaries. This preference for new guns means that the trail leading from the original purchaser to the person who uses a gun in crime (if they are different) is relatively short and therefore susceptible to a trace back to the original dealer and then forward, via the dealer's paperwork, to the first purchaser. A policy of regular tracing of crime guns holds great promise for identifying scofflaw FFLs and straw purchasers, i.e., those who are legally entitled to buy but do so in order to provide guns to those who aren't.

Placing all firearm transactions under the control of FFLs--in other words, outlawing that part of the informal market that is currently legal, mainly sales and trades by non-dealers--though subject to enormous logistic and political obstacles, would go some way to keeping guns away from those who are not supposed to have them.

The street market in firearms | Is there a "black market" for firearms, a street network connecting sellers with buyers barred from legal gun purchase? If so, might there not be possibilities for disrupting this market with tactics borrowed from the "drug war"? Koper and Reuter bring their expertise on illegal drug markets to bear on the street market for guns. Their conclusion is that the prospects for effective curtailment there are even poorer than the modest results that have been achieved against illegal drugs. The black market for guns appears to be too diffuse for an effective disruption strategy. Illicit gun sales occur much less frequently than drug sales. There don't appear to be predictable locations for these transactions. Distribution does not generally entail the tree-like ramification from a few initial, mass-volume nodes, typical of heroin and cocaine markets, that make possible high-yield arrests. And, unlike in drug markets, buyers and sellers of guns on the street appear to know one another more often than would be ideal for undercover operations--a substantial fraction of convicts and students report that family and friends are a ready source of guns.

All of this is not to say that the street market in guns is invulnerable. Drug sellers and buyers frequently sell guns as an adjunct to their main occupation, so that interdiction efforts that exploited the relatively structured nature of drug markets would have improved prospects. In addition, professional gun-running operations do exist, and recent surveillance and interdiction efforts, based largely on new federal integration of tracing procedures, have netted a number of purveyors supplying the northeast (New York Times, April 30, 1997). (The Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, a federal program to trace all crime guns in seventeen cities and deploy federal resources to pursue traffickers supplying guns to juveniles and youths, grew out of conversations between David Kennedy and Susan Ginsburg, Senior Advisor at the Department of the Treasury, at the HFG foundation conference that produced Kids, Guns, and Public Policy.)

Policy experiments | Kennedy and colleagues describe a strategic innovation intended to curtail youth violence in Boston, a cooperative effort of researchers at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Boston Police Department. The rationale for this initiative begins with the observation that a disproportionate amount of youth gun violence is the contribution of a small number of even those youths who carry guns and that these youths are concentrated in Boston's gangs. If the epidemic of youth violence is driven by a dynamic in which fear of violence motivates gun carrying, which, in turn, engenders more violence, then creating a "firebreak" across this dynamic by suppressing violence among the most volatile youth should ramify beneficially throughout the city.

From this understanding derives a strategy of carefully targeted enforcement, which Kennedy terms a "classic deterrence strategy." Any violence at the hands of a gang member is met with an unambiguously aversive response, utilizing "all available legal enforcement levers," from probation revocation to the threat of federal prosecution for racketeering and the attendant lengthy sentences. Equally important is clear and repeated communication to gang members of the contingencies of the campaign: what has provoked this weighty response (any incident of violence) and how it can be avoided (desisting from violence).

In the year after the policy was put in place in June, 1996, Boston saw a two-thirds reduction in youth homicide compared with the yearly average for the previous seven years. It is not obvious how generally applicable this strategy would be, as youth violence is not so tightly gang-linked in many other cities. However, it is knowledge on the part of police and probation officers as to which youth in their purview are most involved in serious violence rather than the gang connection itself that seems crucial to the success of this approach. Such fine-grained law-enforcement intelligence is abundant throughout the country.

Rosenfeld and Decker are preparing to evaluate the impact of another law-enforcement initiative designed to reduce youth violence, the Firearm Suppression Program of the St. Louis Police Department. In response to information from citizens or police intelligence that a juvenile has a firearm, two officers visit the youth's home and request permission of an adult resident to search for illegal firearms. The adult is informed that they will not be subject to prosecution for any illegal weapons found but that such weapons will be confiscated.

Reasonable objections have been raised about just how free a citizen feels to refuse such an in-person request by two police officers. The response of the adults in St. Louis's high-crime neighborhoods, however, has been overwhelmingly positive.

During the first year of the program (1994), 400 firearms were seized. Although this was only 10% of all firearms confiscated by or turned into police that year, the program may have a beneficial impact greater than this modest fraction suggests. Most guns acquired by the police come in only after the commission of a crime, but this program is preventive. Evaluation of its efficacy will obviously require measuring its impact on violent crime, an effect that will depend on whether youths who have had their guns taken re-arm themselves and, if so, how quickly. In addition, Rosenfeld and Decker will plumb for a number of indirect effects, especially possible changes in youth attitudes toward police in the wake of police confiscation of their possessions.

Kamin considers the prospects for the development of "smart detectors," devices that would allow the detection of concealed weapons with greater discrimination than is currently possible. Courts allow police to search for weapons and security personnel to screen for weapons at entrances to public areas without probable cause because of the extraordinary risks such instruments pose. Given the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unjustified searches, the challenge for developers of technological alternatives to frisking is to invent a device that can "search without searching," that is, find guns but nothing else. Such detectors would prevent authorities from using gun searches as pretenses for pursuit of contraband in general.

It is clear from Kids, Guns, and Public Policy that there are any number of feasible strategies for keeping youth and guns apart. What we lack is not ideas about how to do it but the political will to do so.

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