Fatal Attraction

American youth have developed a deadly fascination with firearms

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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 might turn out to be a .32-caliber revolver.

In the past, 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, D.C., 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,” says 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 says, “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 why children feel compelled to carry and use guns. Their prevalence 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 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 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,” says 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.

The statistics are grim. Nearly one out of five students in grades 9 to 12 carries a weapon—in school or elsewhere—and one in 20 carries a firearm at least once a month, according to a survey of 11,631 students released this fall by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Data collected in the National Adolescent Student Health Survey, a federally funded study of 11,000 8th and 10th graders, revealed that an estimated 135,000 boys in 1987 brought a gun to school daily.

The consequences of this gun toting are increasingly fatal. 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, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Black male teenagers are particularly vulnerable; nearly half of all deaths among this group in 1988 were by firearms, and their deaths accounted for much of the four-year, 43 percent increase.

The illegal-drug trade, which has led to a proliferation of weapons that are viewed as essential for protection and to enforce deals, is partly to blame; the competition for turf and power between gangs in many communities has fueled a small-scale arms race.

Teenagers in such environments learn that firearms are a sign of power and recognition, and word of how to get them on the underground market spreads quickly. The price is often within reach; even law-abiding teenagers working part-time jobs have enough money to purchase them. 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. “It's just a matter of supply and demand,” asserts Sherman of the University of Maryland. “The supply is out there; the demand is high.”

Another place children typically get their hands on a gun can be as close as the family coffee table; guns kept at home for hunting or for protection often end up involved in youth crime. Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia, offers a bloody example. A 14-year-old girl, who was angry at her boyfriend for cheating on her, grabbed a household gun and fatally shot a neighbor who got in her way.

“The availability of the gun,” Cornell says, “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 minorities. 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 study also found that the teenagers' first firearm was typically acquired at age 12; a father, grandfather, or uncle was the primary source.

But why do these weapons end up at school? Psychologists, criminologists, and others agree that one of the most common reasons is fear. A recent U.S. Justice Department survey of 10,000 12to 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 non-victims feared such an attack.

But sometimes, friends can be just as powerful an influence as fear. If a child's schoolmates start to carry guns, says George Butterfield, the deputy director of the National School Safety Center, “then the kid says, `I'd better carry one, too.” Their attitude, he says, is: “I carry a comb. I carry makeup. I carry a piece of candy. Why not carry a gun?”'

One New York City student provides a firsthand account of weapons in school in an English composition. The sophomore at Franklin K. Lane High School writes that half the student body carries some kind of weapon. Listing the variety of handguns students tote, the boy reports that the guns “used most” are .22caliber and .25-caliber “because they are small and easy to carry.” If they do not bring their own, he writes, 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 notes. “Students also bring in weapons for protection, to show off, or to use instead of fighting.”

Aggression and fighting, especially among adolescent boys, are nothing new. But what is new, Sherman says, “is the lethality of it all.” When acquaintances get together and guns are accessible, “then it's just natural to seek out the gun to satisfy the instinctive competition of young males,” he says. “The number of guns in this country is reaping a terrible harvest of kids who are just being human in their competitiveness.”

Something in the way children relate to guns seems to make the weapon more dangerous. Unlike choking a victim or stabbing him with a knife, a cold detachment can reign over the user of a firearm. “Guns are almost unreal,” says Charles Patrick Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “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 Ewing has interviewed regard the killing as accidental, even when they intended to pull the trigger. “It's awfully easy,” he says, “to pull out a gun impulsively and then regret that split second for the rest of your life.” Ewing believes 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.

But the roots of such a mentality can be as complex as society itself. Sometimes, 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, Ewing says. Children “learn to be violent,” he says. “They learn to be criminals. They learn to kill.”

Poverty and a dim future filled with few options can also figure into whether a youth resorts to violence. Homicide rates are often highest 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.

Societal messages about violence and guns, conveyed through conduits as varied as parents and the popular media—books, movies, comic books, and television—also greatly influence a child's behavior. Violence and gun use are “the solutions to problems they observe on TV, in the media daily, year after year,” says clinical psychologist Cornell. “So, it becomes a more obvious solution to a new problem.”

But Edwin Delattre, the interim dean of Boston University's school of education, sees the societal influences differently. Because of the setting in which they live, he says, these youngsters 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. Instead, Delattre says, they go straight to “I'll blow your brains out.”

Popular culture, he says, plays a role in fostering such antisocial behavior because it “glorifies the instant gratification of passion.”

It is, Delattre says, “a culture of impulse.”

Vol. 03, Issue 04, Pages 15-16

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