Kids and Gun Violence: Can We Change?

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A child holding a toy gun.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Frank Boston.

Sometimes the most important sound is the one you don’t hear. The sound that is conspicuous by its absence? A full-throated outrage over the rampant gun violence that plagues U.S. children. Consider:
A traditional indicator of a country’s tolerance for gun violence is its firearm fatality rate, which includes suicides and accidents. Ours is breathtaking. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. rate is more than twice that of the next highest country, and eight times higher than the average. Looking solely at gun homicides, an American is 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country.
But the most alarming comparative data pertain to child gun violence. Gun violence wreaks havoc with American youth. The carnage is grim, both abstractly and relatively. Guns kill or seriously injure nearly 10,000 children each year in the U.S. The firearm fatality rate among children under 15 years old is spectacularly high, nearly twelve times higher than in 25 other industrial countries combined. And a recent Center for American Progress report projects that gun violence will surpass car accidents as the leading cause of child deaths sometime this year.
We implicate the children by the laxity of our gun laws and attitudes. The stories are legion. Some recent examples: last April, a 4-year old boy grabbed a loaded gun at a family cookout in Tennessee and accidentally shot a woman to death. Four days later in New Jersey, another 4-year old accidentally shot and killed a 6-year old playmate with a family rifle.
Later in Kentucky, a 5-year old boy accidentally shot his 2-year old sister to death. What distinguishes this case is that the tiny rifle that killed the sister was received by the boy as a gift. The manufacturer, Keystone Sporting Arms, makes guns – real guns – geared towards children, featuring smaller guns in different colors. All perfectly legal.
A related issue of concern is the frequency of police shootings of black teens. A controversial issue of ProPublica in October of 2014 found that from 2010-2012, African-American teenage men age 15-19 were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot by the police, and eight times as likely as white males of the same ages to be killed in gun-related homicides. Gun-related homicide was the leading cause of death among this group. The finding generated much controversy. In response, the magazine issued the following statement on Dec. 24, 2014:

Many have pointed to our reporting as proof of police bias. That overstates our case; ProPublica found evidence of a disparity in the risks faced by young black and white men. This does not prove that police officers target any age or racial group – the data is far too limited to point to a cause for the disparity.

How Did We Get Here?

Our gun culture. The right of self-defense. The Second Amendment. Gun rights advocates trot out these tired and questionable rationalizations after every horrific incidence of child gun violence. With great effect. For ours is the sole major industrialized country that has not responsibly addressed this problem.Indeed “problem” would be a euphemism. “Plague” or “crisis” would be more apt. The 3,000 children who are fatally shot each year is a death rate triple that of the American soldiers in The Revolutionary War.
But child gun violence is the undeclared war that never ends. No truce or conciliation beckons. Indeed, a common perception is that the war was lost seven years ago. That’s when a one-person majority on the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a badly needed Washington, D.C. handgun ban on Second Amendment grounds (Heller v. District of Columbia.) Though profoundly consequential, the Heller decision was but one symptom of a deep-seated, prevalent malaise.
There’s more to it. Much more. Some suggest that gun violence inheres in our societal DNA. After all, ours was a country baptized in armed revolt; moreover, we could not have tamed a continental wilderness without guns.
All that happened centuries ago however. What largely sustains and perpetuates gun violence now is American popular culture. Particularly entertainment. Violent gunplay is baked into TV, movies and video games. Many top-rated TV shows depict brutal and sometimes sadistic crimes. The likes of “Breaking Bad,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Hannibal” were at once wildly popular and surprisingly violent TV shows.
What are the prospects for harnessing child gun violence? Decidedly grim. A widely cited statistical projection based upon current trends finds that gun shootings will surpass car accidents as the leading cause of death among young people this year.
Formidable armaments populate this undeclared war on children: well over 300 million firearms (about one per person), of which 100 million are handguns – objects alluring to children, especially boys. And alarmingly easy to use if not locked. Ours is the highest gun ownership rate anywhere in the world, at any time.
A smart-gun with biometric scanner.

One proposed solution to child gun violence is 'smart gun' technology. This includes keypad safety locks and biometric scanners, so that only a designated person can fire the gun. Credit: BulletproofKidsUtah.

At least one explanation is obvious. Few industries are more lucrative than firearms. According to the Nations Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry is worth $32 billion per year. Moreover profits on handgun sales are surging according to Bloomberg Business Week – 43% for the first quarter of 2014.
How does that compare with the financial impact of gun violence? A widely cited study by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig estimates that the total annual cost of gun violence in the United States is $100 billion (dwarfing gun sales), of which $15 billion is attributable to costs associated with gun violence to children and teens.
As measured in blood and bucks, this spectacular failure of law, policy and compassion amidst an otherwise child-friendly society raises fundamental questions: Do we not learn from experience? From the practices of other countries? The dimensions of this ongoing American tragedy hog the moral terrain.
One distinctive factor is America’s obsession with handguns. Americans first became enamored of the handgun’s utility in the taming of the frontier. The infatuation remains, resolute and unabashed.
Romancing The Gun
How did this come to pass? Theories abound. Here’s mine. The public perception of handguns was markedly different during my childhood. Sure, Al Capone and his successors were handgun-toting bad guys who had shot people. Lots of people. But they were inevitably captured or killed by lawmen bearing even more guns.And those iconic TV cowboy heroes – Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Matt Dillon to name a few – would reliably and nonchalantly deploy their trusty six-shooters to gun down wayward foes. Indeed, “Marshall Dillon” of the wildly popular Gunsmoke would dispatch a foe during the teaser at the beginning of each show. (No reason to make your kids wait too long for their violent gunplay fix.) Gun killing became standard entertainment fare, blunting any sensibility about the sudden, violent, harsh reality of shooting people dead. Heck, Gene Autry even threw in a soulful, cuddly song or two after exchanging gun for guitar.
Movies too pandered to the public craving for enacted gun violence. Beginning with The Great Train Robbery (1903), Hollywood studios produced a cornucopia of movies featuring extended gunfights. In this early classic, a bandit pointed his gun straight at the audience and fired right in their faces to startle them. (The ploy worked, stimulating an adrenaline rush for the audience and launching a long-running cash bonanza for the industry.) A key subtext is that the handgun has become a quintessential part of Americana.
Our Children in Jeopardy
Our passion for guns has rendered many collectively deaf to the dreadful cacophony of child-victim gun violence endemic to the U.S. Inattention (or worse, indifference) to the dangers that guns impliedly permit creates a lethally volatile environment for minors. With approximately 310 million firearms in circulation nationally, of which over 100 million are handguns, the grim results are predictable. Data from the Children’s Defense Fund reveals that, in the U.S.:

  • About 3,000 children and teens die from gun injuries every year. (That exceeds one Sandy Hook Massacre every three days.)
  • A child or teen dies or is injured every 30 minutes from guns.
  • One-third of all of households with children younger than 18 have a gun, and more than 46% of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked.

What do these appalling data imply? That many if not most American adults are so in the thrall of their craving for guns that they allow the safety of their children to be flagrantly compromised?
The Awesome Political Power of the Gun Lobby
Maybe not. Consider: more comprehensive screening of gun buyers was supported by 91% of U.S. voters, including 88% of gun-owning households, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Yet President Obama’s proposed mandatory background check bill failed to even reach a vote in a Democrat-dominated U.S. Senate. That’s a stunning display of political power. By any standard.In American politics, money is power. Using 2012 as a typical year, tax filings show the top six national gun rights groups brought in close to $301 million in revenue in that year, while six major national gun control nonprofits raised just more than $16 million. A ratio of 19 to 1.
That’s revenue. What about spending? According to ProPublica, the total amount of top campaign contributions by gun rights interest groups in 2012 was $3.13 million. The comparable figure for gun control groups was $4,036. That’s a ratio of 776 to 1.
Blocking a popular gun control proposal was only the most recent illustration of the gun lobby’s legendary influence over Congress. Federal law already forbids The Consumer Product Safety Commission from regulating the manufacture or sale of guns or ammunition. So the Commission can regulate teddy bears and toy guns, but not real guns. Feel safer?

A large monument of a gun with the end of the barrel tied in a knot.

Among industrialized countries, the U.S. firearm fatality rate is more than twice that of the next highest country, and eight times higher than the average. Credit: CreativeCommons / Jim, The Photographer.

Whatever the answer(s), one irony is inescapable. No country has done more for the welfare of children, domestically and worldwide, than the U.S. Yet we, as a nation, continue to facilitate availability of the key instrumentality of our distinctive gun violence malaise, the handgun, to our children. Puzzling.
The short explanation is that the “we” referred to is, ultimately, the will of a one-person conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. Its interpretations of The Second Amendment were profoundly consequential. The Court invalidated serious handgun control efforts by Washington, D.C. and Chicago in 2008.
But what about the public reaction to our extraordinary child gun violence? Has there been outrage? Remorse? Demand for gun control reform?
Perversely, just the opposite. Indeed, a recent Pew Research report found growing public support for gun rights. For the first time in two decades there is more support for gun rights than gun control: 52% said it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while only 46% said it is more important to control gun ownership. Moreover, nearly six-in-ten Americans (57%) said gun ownership does more to protect people from crime, while only 38% say it does more to endanger personal safety.
Along with all of our illustrious contributions to the welfare of children, these data – along with the perceptions and values they reflect – define us.
A Potential New Remedy
One innovation makes the current debate especially curious. Ballistic science has recently provided an option that could dramatically reduce child gun violence without weapon confiscation – programmable “smart guns.” Merely entering a simple three or four digit code of your choice would unlock the firing mechanism. A few seconds for the life of your child. Would this potentially life-saving feature be perceived as an offer too good to refuse, or an intolerable restriction?Before answering, consider: we could also require a breath analyzer that disabled a car’s starter if the car’s driver registered above a maximum alcohol content. According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of five child traffic fatalities involved drunk driving crashes. Proactively responsible? Of course. Sensible? Clearly. Think it would pass? Unlikely.
Why such a doomed prognosis? Maybe this: too many people believe that such constraints should only apply to other people, you know, those cretins who don’t share our keen appreciation of what is too much to drink.
Objections to Gun Control
Guns are undeniably woven into the fabric of American life. So any gun control proposals – even minimal ones or those directed at reducing the shootings of young people – will meet with rancorous resistance, particularly by those with a libertarian bent. Consider three such possible objections to gun control. Each is followed by responsive critique.First, imagine a devastating earthquake cuts food supplies to your part of the country and a small group of people have successfully managed to hide from the government (which had imposed a ban on guns) their private stash. These people then begin to go house to house looting the food supplies that you and your neighbors have managed to keep for themselves. Neighbors with guns might choose to protect their food supply if the alternative was that they and their young children might otherwise starve to death.
A child holding a toy gun at a wedding.

Some suggest that gun violence inheres in our societal DNA. After all, ours was a country baptized in armed revolt; moreover, we could not have tamed a continental wilderness without guns. Credit: CreativeCommons / Melinda.

Any such doomsday-like scenario offered presents the classic “return to a state of nature.” Civilized society and government no longer exist among the small group remaining. The overarching imperative is to survive – if necessary by wits and weapons.
But such a profoundly implausible state of affairs and commensurate values that obtain in the scenario are not comparable to the most advanced society in history and a population of 310 million. They could not, therefore, be the basis for value-setting. For example, one would not ask whether hunting was immoral if there were no alternative ways of providing protein to the human diet.
A second scenario: following a political victory, a conservative majority decides that it has the right to ban certain forms of dissent and a conservative Supreme Court backs them up. A civil war bursts out, but only the right-wing government has arms at its disposal. Some would argue that the Second Amendment was concerned to prevent such a state of affairs by protecting a right to bear arms.
Yet this is clearly not the scenario that the Second Amendment was addressing. The overwhelming consensus is that The Framers’ concern was either or both of the following:
A) A return of the British, or
B) A fear that the new U.S. central government would constrict the rights of the new states in a loosely allied confederation. That is why The Second Amendment references a “free state,” not a free nation.
Third, if preserving life is the primary social objective, some would suggest that it makes more sense to ban private automobiles and insist instead on spending public funds to develop adequate public transportation. Guns, it could be argued, should not be singled out more than all the other ways that human beings hurt themselves, their families and each other.
Several responses present themselves. Unlike disease and war, we can substantially ameliorate the toll of child gun violence. And that toll is rising alarmingly.
There are many ways that we hurt ourselves and each other. But we are addressing most of them via government oversight. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, The Food and Drug Administration and The Consumer Product Safety Commission are three prominent examples of public remediation.
What could be more meritorious than a similar solicitude towards the ten thousand U.S. children victimized every year by gun violence?