Why Are Children Turning to Guns?

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Not so many years ago, an elementary- or middle-school student eager to impress a classmate might have stuffed a live frog into the pocket of his windbreaker.

Today, the object of choice might instead turn out to be a .32-caliber revolver.

Or a dispute among teenagers, brought on by a shoulder bumped in the hallway or a remark about a girlfriend, might have ended in a bloody nose, not a pool of blood.

Whether in Washington, Milwaukee, Houston, or Los Angeles, in school or at home, thousands of children, many of whom have had no history of troublemaking, are packing an arsenal of weapons.

"Kids are dangerous; they always have been," said Lawrence Sherman, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland. "And now that we've got guns ..."

"Unless we control guns in the streets," he added, "we're going to have to start building our schools like castles."

The fact that more children and teenagers are toting guns and ammunition is relatively easy to document through a flood of statistical and anecdotal evidence.

Much harder to nail down with any certainty are the reasons that children feel compelled to carry and use guns.

The prevalence of guns in relation to gang activity and drug trafficking has attracted much attention and study over the past several years. The same is true of the troubling questions raised by accidental shootings and suicides.

But what remains much more elusive, experts say, is why a youngster from the suburbs or an inner city--who may not be directly involved in gangs or drugs would have access to, carry, and even intentionally use a firearm.

While a youth's reasons for having or using a gun may be as unique and complicated as the youngster himself, experts tick off several explanations: the easy availability of guns, a child's fear for his own safety, and a desire to show off a gun or have what has become a fashionable status symbol.

But researchers also say the cause can have deeper origins--in the psychology of guns, in poverty and unemployment, and in society's messages about violence and guns.

"There is an infatuation with violence in this country that is taught to children, including an infatuation with the weapons of violence," said Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the assistant dean for government and community programs at the Harvard School of Public Health and the former Massachusetts commissioner of public health.

Sobering Statistics

The statistics on the prevalence of firearms among children and teenagers document a growing problem.

Nearly 1 out of 5 students in grades 9 to 12 carries a weapon--in school or elsewhere--and 1 in 20 carries a firearm at least once a month, a survey of 11,631 students released this fall by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found. (See Education Week, Oct. 16, 1991.)

According to data collected in the National Adolescent Student Health Survey, a federally funded study of 11,000 8th and 10th graders, an estimated 135,000 boys nationwide in 1987 brought a gun to school daily.

And the fatal consequences of adolescent gun play--which officials are increasingly approaching as a matter of public health--are getting worse.

After a five-year decrease, the rate of Americans ages 15 to 19 killed by firearms increased by 43 percent between 1984 and 1988, to a record 17.7 deaths per 100,000 youths, a study by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department found.

Black male teenagers are particularly vulnerable. Nearly half of all deaths among black male teenagers in 1988 were by firearms, and their deaths accounted for much of the four-year, 43 percent increase, the H.H.S. report said. (See Education Week, March 20, 1991.)

'Supply and Demand'

Whatever their motivation, children apparently have little trouble getting their hands on a gun-whether from a drug dealer or from their own parents.

The illegal-drug market has led to a proliferation of weapons viewed as essential for protection and to enforce deals, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia.

The competition for turf and power between gangs in a community can fuel a small-scale arms race, said George E. Butterfield, the deputy director of the National School Safety Center.

"One gang gets a new, high-powered, sexy weapon," Mr. Butterfield said, "and the other gang has to get it."

Word of how to get guns on the underground market spreads quickly, Mr. Cornell said.

Among the juvenile murderers he has studied, Mr. Cornell said "it was common knowledge within their peer group" of where to get a gun.

In addition, he noted, the high status of firearms among drug dealers and gangs ends up influencing a more widespread view among teenagers of guns "as a sign of power and recognition."

According to Mr. Sherman of the University of Maryland, the explanation for the availability of guns rests largely on basic economic principles.

"It's just a matter of supply and demand," he said. "The supply is out there; the demand is high."

Even law-abiding teenagers working part-time jobs have access to enough money to purchase weapons, said Mr. Sherman, who is also president of the Washington-based Crime Control Institute.

"You don't have to be a crack dealer to get $500 or $1,000 together," he said.

Such easy access to guns, coupled with teenagers' ready access to cars, means that weapons can just as easily show up in the suburbs as in the inner city, Mr. Sherman said.

Guns at Home

The other place that children typically get their hands on a gun, experts point out, can be as close as the family coffee table.

Guns kept at home for hunting or for protection "get involved inordinately" in youth crime, Mr. Cornell of the University of Virginia said.

Pointing to his recent evaluation of a 14-year-old girl, angry at her boyfriend for cheating on her, who grabbed a household gun and fatally shot a neighbor who got in her way, Mr. Cornell said, "The availability of the gun made that an idea that was appealing to her as a way to express herself."

Indeed, research confirms that access to guns is hardly limited to the inner city or minority-group members.

A 1990 Texas A&M study, in which 81.5 percent of the students were white, found that teenage boys in rural Texas schools were twice as likely as the national average to have carried a handgun to school at least once during the school year.

Similarly, a study of black and white suburban and rural teenagers conducted in 1987 and 1988 by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 48 percent of the boys owned guns; among white males, the figure rose to 56 percent.

The U.N.C. study also found that the teenagers' first firearm was typically acquired at age 12, and that a father, grandfather, or uncle was the primary source.

For some male adolescents, the authors concluded, gun ownership appeared to play "a normative role during their transition from childhood to maturity."

Fear and Peers

Psychologists, criminologists, and others say one of the most common reasons that youngsters carry guns--and why weapons appear at school--is the fear children have for their own safety.

Indeed, a recent U.S. Justice Department survey of 10,000 12- to 19-year-olds found that 2 percent of students--or an estimated 400,000 nationwide--had been the victims of a violent crime at school.

It also found that 53 percent of victims of violent crime and 19 percent of nonvictims feared an attack at school.

Sometimes, friends can be just as powerful an influence as fear, experts say.

If a child's friends or schoolmates start to carry guns, "then the kid says, 'I'd better carry one, too,' "said Mr. Butterfield of the National School Safety Center.

In other instances, older gang members may recruit other students to hold a gun for them when they feel their own gang affiliation might make it risky for them to carry a weapon, especially at school, Mr. Butterfield said.

A 9-year-old, for example, "who is fascinated and wants to get into [the gang]" may be asked to hold the gun, according to Mr. Butterfield. Similarly, a girl might be asked to carry a gang member's weapon.

Whether the motivation is to fit in, show off, or even to make money by selling a gun, some students, Mr. Butterfield said, "wouldn't think twice about carrying a gun."

Their attitude, he said, is: "'I carry a comb .... I carry makeup. I carry a piece of candy. Why not carry a gun?'"

"It's almost a fashion statement to have your own beeper or even your own particular type of sidearm," said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center.

Guns in School

School is a prime location for weapons possession, experts note, because it is a gathering spot, and, for student drug dealers, a place of business.

"It is, if you will, the town center for juveniles," Mr. Sherman of the Crime Control Institute said.

One New York City student recorded his firsthand account of weapons in school in an English composition. The sophomore at Franklin K. Lane High School wrote that half the student body carried some kind of weapon.

Listing the variety of handguns carried by students, the student reported that the guns "used most" are .22-caliber and .25-caliber "because they are small and easy to carry."

If they do not bring their own, he wrote, students can purchase weapons at school "from drug dealers, friends, and other sources."

The essay cites several reasons why a student would bring a weapon to school.

"One main reason is to get revenge on another schoolmate," the student wrote. "Students also bring in weapons for protection, to show off, or to use instead of fighting."

'Terrible Harvest'

Experts say the fact that youngsters are not just carrying guns but are using them on each other raises questions about values and aggression and how societal and family examples influence children's behavior.

Aggression and fighting, especially among adolescent boys, is nothing new, experts agree.

"What's new," Mr. Sherman said, "is the lethality of it all ."

When acquaintances get together, and guns are accessible, he said, "then it's just natural to seek out the gun to satisfy the instinctive competition of young males."

Mr. Sherman faults the profusion of guns for the mounting toll of deaths and injuries, not the youths.

"The number of guns in this country is reaping a terrible harvest of kids who are just being human in their competitiveness," he said.

Something in the way children relate to guns seems to make the weapon more dangerous, said Charles Patrick Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Unlike choking a victim or stabbing him with a knife, a cold detachment can reign over the user of a gun, he said.

"Guns are almost unreal," Mr. Ewing said. "The relationship between the [child], the bullet, the trigger, and the other person... it's so attenuated."

Because of that, some of the juvenile murderers he has interviewed "regard killing as accidental"--even when they intended to pull the trigger, Mr. Ewing said.

"They don't seem to see the consequences of their act," he said.

"It's awfully easy to pull out a gun impulsively," he added, "and then regret that split second for the rest of your life."

Low Regard for Human Life

Mr. Ewing also believes, however, that children are becoming more violent.

"I see a growing number of kids who are sociopaths [who have] no development of moral concern" for others, he said.

Mr. Cornell of the University of Virginia has seen the same in his research.

"There are a large number of cases where there isn't a high regard for human life," he said.

But the roots of such a mentality can be as complex as society itself.

Sometimes, as with the availability of guns, one need look no further than the child's own home.

"I have rarely seen a kid who's killed anybody who hadn't been abused" by his parents or others, Mr. Ewing said.

Children "learn to be violent," he said. "They learn to be criminals. They learn to kill."

Children who have been abused and neglected, and perhaps shuttled from home to home, do not have "a sense that they are loved and valued as a person," Mr. Cornell said.

"Without that," he added, "they don't develop a capacity to love and respect human beings."

Poverty and a dim future filled with few options can also figure into whether a youth resorts to violence, experts say.

Homicide rates are often highest, Mr. Ewing noted, in communities where the unemployment and school-dropout rates are high.

Youngsters in such communities often see their options as either earning the minimum wage flipping burgers or risking a life of crime that could bring them quick money, experts point out.

'If I Only Had a Gun'

Societal messages about violence and guns, conveyed through conduits as varied as parents and the popular media, can greatly influence a child's behavior, experts say.

Part of the job of responsible parents, said Dr. Prothrow-Stith of Harvard, is to try to offer children a different message from the one they get from movies and television.

"The kids who don't have that kind of countering or response to what they're seeing," she added, "are much more vulnerable to media messages."

But parents may inadvertently transmit the same violent message, said Officer Alan Johnson, a 12-year veteran of the Houston Police Department's juvenile division.

If another driver cuts the parent off in traffic, for example, the child may hear the parent say," 'If I only had a gun,' or '! wish I could kill that guy,'" Mr. Johnson said.

The popular media books, movies, comic books, television--also deliver such messages, according to Mr. Ewing of SUNY at Buffalo.

"The heroes, superheros are just as violent as the villains," he said, citing the popular cartoon characters Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an example.

"Now we've got 'violence is good,' not 'violence is bad,'" Mr. Ewing added. Violence and gun use "is the solution to problems they observe on TV, in the media daily, year after year," Mr. Cornell agreed. "So it becomes a more obvious solution to a new problem."

Even political leaders contribute to the problem, according to Dr. Prothrow-Stith.

When former President Ronald Reagan, for example, invoked the actor Clint Eastwood's famous catch phrase "make my day" in urging the Libyans to attack, she said, such a statement "has a small impact on a large number of people ."

The trouble, she added, is that "it has a large impact on a small number of people, particularly young adolescent boys."

'A Culture of Impulse'

But Edwin J. Delattre, the interim dean of Boston University's school of education, sees the societal influences differently.

"It's not that these children are products of some culture," said Mr. Delattre, the Olin Scholar of Applied Ethics. "They really are products of no culture at all."

Because of the setting in which they live, he said, these "creatures of the streets" know nothing of a "graduated response" to someone or something that provokes them.

Confronted with an insult, they do not ignore it or lob an insult back, Mr. Delattre said. Instead, he continued, they go straight to" 'I'll blow your brains out.'"

Popular culture, he said, plays a role in fostering such anti-social behavior because it "glorifies the instant gratification of passion."

It is, Mr. Delattre said, "a culture of impulse."

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: November 6, 1991, as Why Are Children Turning to Guns ?
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