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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as In the Hands of Children

In the Hands of Children

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In 1996, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 40 percent of Americans reported owning a gun.

Federal statistics show that over the past 20 years, more than 100 million new guns have come into circulation in the United States; nearly half of them are handguns. During the same period, however, the percentage of people reporting having a gun at home has dropped, reflecting the fact that new guns purchases are probably being concentrated among fewer people. In 1996, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 40 percent of Americans reported owning a gun. In 1977, 51 percent said they kept a gun at home.

Gun-control advocates say that number probably is low because it doesn't include the unlicensed firearms that are bought and sold illegally.

With more guns flowing into the marketplace and countless ways for youths to acquire them, erecting effective barriers to keep minors from a potentially deadly weapon is a challenging task.

In Savannah, a coastal city of about 280,000, guns are as ubiquitous as the Spanish moss that drapes from the oak trees lining the streets.

But since the slayings of Jason Kelly and Dwayne Cedric Martin, the only fatal school shootings that have occurred in the 37,000-student district, local residents have been torn over how to keep guns away from youths without infringing on adults' constitutional--and what many here call "God-given"--right to bear arms.

Americans have long had a healthy respect for firearms. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of local militia in winning freedom from English rule and guaranteed the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Current federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from purchasing a rifle or shotgun and bars anyone under 21 from buying a handgun. "In every state, with the exception of recognized activities like hunting or participating in a junior shooting event, virtually everything a juvenile does with a firearm is illegal," said Bill Powers, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.

The NRA represents 2.8 million gun owners in all 50 states, but guns historically have had an added meaning for Southerners. Especially since Union armies torched Southern towns during the Civil War, guns have been viewed as protection from unwelcome intruders.

Weapons also have served an economic purpose here; rifles and shotguns long enabled many poor, rural communities to literally live off the land.

Federal law prohibits the sale or purchase of all automatic weapons, but three states also control the number of handguns an individual can buy at one time. Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia all have passed laws that limit a person's handgun purchases to one a month. But in Georgia and several other states, purchasers can buy in bulk. Today, more than 50 percent of Georgians own guns.

At Welsh's Pawn Shop, along a busy thoroughfare on Savannah's south side, owner Neil Cohen is surveying his merchandise. Next to the rows of television sets, electric guitars, video games, and assorted appliances, are a dozen wood-handled shotguns and rifles stacked neatly in a row against the wall. A glass display case below houses the handguns: silver-handled revolvers, a 9mm pistol, and a collection of 3 1/2-inch derringers small enough to fit in a handbag.

The federal Brady Law established a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases to allow gun sellers to run background checks on prospective buyers. But Georgia and 17 other states are permitted to use a computerized system that allows many dealers to screen customers quickly.

With a driver's license and Social Security number, customers here can buy a gun--ranging in price from $50 to $1,200--in a matter of minutes. Unless, of course, you are a convicted felon or underage.

"You'd be stupid to lose your livelihood and business to let a kid go hunting," Cohen says, as a teenager trying to pawn a television set pauses to marvel at the collection of shiny handguns.

Officials at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which prosecutes merchandisers who sell to minors, say legal gun dealers aren't a major supplier of firearms to youths.

Most firearms dealers operate within federal and state statutes, says John Ryan, an ATF spokesman. A dealer who sells a firearm to a minor would face five years in prison, he notes.

Because the illicit drug and gun trades are so interconnected, an obvious way to squelch the black market for firearms is to intensify anti-drug enforcement.

But, Cohen says, his seven stores have been broken into six times in 20 years, and every theft has been for firearms. Once stolen, a gun can be sold on the street in less than an hour, local police say.

To help trace stolen weapons sold on the street to the most recent owner, some prosecutors favor registering a gun every time it is legitimately sold.

"I like the idea of registering a firearm once you sell it, so we know who bought the gun, who sold it, and to whom," says Jeffrey Hendrix, an assistant district attorney in Chatham County, which includes Savannah. Hendrix, who prosecuted Keith Green, says he prosecuted 89 juveniles on weapons charges last year--and 24 of those charges were for juveniles carrying a gun to school.

Law-enforcement officers here and across the nation say that because the illicit drug and gun trades are so interconnected, an obvious way to squelch the black market for firearms is to intensify anti-drug enforcement.

One humid evening last month, two young officers with the Chatham-Savannah Counter-Narcotics Team cruise downtown in their white Oldsmobile Cutlass looking for wrongdoing.

Next to a house they often use for surveillance of drug deals, Officer Brett Tremelling scoops up a dozen small blue bags that once contained crack cocaine from a patch of high grass.

"Anywhere you have crackheads, there's going to be guns," Tremelling says. Last year, Tremelling and his partner seized an average of three guns every time they went out on a drug raid.

Arresting drug dealers and providing treatment for addicts could put a dent in the street trade of firearms, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says.

While such law-enforcement activities are designed to stop juveniles from buying weapons, many politicians and anti-gun advocates say imposing penalties on parents who fail to store their weapons properly could make it more difficult for children to take guns from relatives.

Though it's too soon to tell whether such local actions have prompted more conscientious practices among gun owners, Jane Barnard is all for it.

"As a responsible parent, you put knives and matches away," says Barnard, whose youngest daughter, Cassie, witnessed the shooting of Martin at Jenkins High School. Barnard is angry that the handgun Keith Green used that day to kill Martin was borrowed from a friend who took it from home. "It's inexcusable not to put a gun in a safe place unless you think someone is going to storm your house and kill someone," Barnard says.

She supports legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Congress that would make parents in every state liable if their child commits a gun-related crime and they have neglected to take certain safety precautions.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 34-39

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