THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1997)

Disarming Youth
Joel Wallman

In September of 1995, the foundation brought together a group of scholars, some of whom are experts on criminal violence and some of whom study markets in illicit commodities. The aim was to consider promising policy initiatives to reduce serious youth violence, which has attained truly horrific levels in recent years. The product of that conference is Kids, Guns, and Public Policy, the Winter 1996 issue of Law and Contemporary Problems, a publication of the Duke University School of Law. The contributors who participated in the conference are Alfred Blumstein (Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University), Philip Cook (Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University), David Hemenway (Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health), David Kennedy (Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University), James Leitzel (Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University), Peter Reuter (School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland), Richard Rosenfeld (Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St.Louis), and Franklin Zimring (Earl Warren Legal Institute, University of California-Berkeley). In addition to chapters by these contributors and their co-authors, the volume contains two commissioned after the meeting, by Sam Kamin (Judicial Clerk to the Honorable D. Lowell Jensen, Federal District Court for the Northern District of California) and by Deanna Wilkinson and Jeffrey Fagan (School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University and School of Public Health, Columbia University). Philip Cook chaired the conference and edited the volume. What follows is a distillation of the considerable wisdom contained in Kids, Guns, and Public Policy.

The Facts

The widely held belief that homicide has been increasing in recent years is erroneous. The U.S. homicide rate has shown no consistent trend between the early 70s and the much celebrated downturn of the past five or so years. What did increase, however, and dramatically so, was the rate of homicide among young men, from ages 15 to 24, beginning around 1985. The size of the spike varies somewhat depending on which segment of this age range is chosen, but a conservative summary statistic is a doubling of the homicide rate for this group since 1985. (The same pattern is evident whether the focus is homicide arrests or victimization.) This development becomes even more striking when contrasted with the decline in homicide among those 24 and over during the same period. Disaggregating the figures by race yields an appalling tripling of the homicide rate among black adolescents and young men. Although youth homicide has abated somewhat as part of the recent general decline, it is still double the 1985 figure. The projection of a 20% increase in the number of teenagers over the next fifteen years has tempered, though not crushed, the optimism of scholars scrutinizing the recent drop in homicide.

The role of guns

As shocking as the youth violence epidemic is, changes in its instrumentality are even more dramatic and are key to understanding it, as discussed by Blumstein and Cork and by Zimring. For the rate of homicide by means other than firearms did not increase at all during this period--the spike is entirely the result of an increase in gun killings. Between 1984 and 1991, the number of youth gun homicides more than doubled.

It appears, then, that the increased use of guns by youth in their assaults has resulted in the sharp rise in killings by and of youths. This outcome is not surprising, given the greater intrinsic lethality of firearms compared to other weapons. It requires virtually no physical competence to deliver violence with a gun and, because of its lethality, a gun attack entails less risk of retaliation than throwing a punch or even wielding a knife. Both of these facts may make weapon use more likely in a gun bearer, especially in the adolescent male, not known for deliberation about long-term consequences of his behavior. Whether this conjecture is correct--and this is amenable to empirical study--it seems certain that the presence of guns affects the course of a confrontation independently of the predisposition for violence those involved bring to the event, as argued by Wilkinson and Fagan.

Other interpretations are possible, of course. It could be that the number of youth in possession of guns has not increased but that those who do have them have become more inclined to use them, while those with other weapons have not been affected by the same motivation to assault. That this explanation is less plausible than the one indicting an increased prevalence of guns is strongly suggested by the picture of suicide during the same period, developed by Blumstein and Cork. While non-gun suicide was level or declining for most groups, a significant increase in suicide by gun can be seen beginning around 1984 for black youth and young adults and for white youth aged 15 to 19. In other words, an increase in gun suicide, most clearly seen among blacks, accompanies that for gun homicide. The upshot of all of these statistics is that an increase in juveniles' access to guns has meant a sharp rise in violent death among American youth.

The Explanation

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.

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.

Joel Wallman is Program Officer at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

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