Kids and Guns: From Playgrounds to Battlegrounds
by Stuart Greenbaum

Late last year an 11-year-old boy was shot and killed. An 18-year-old allegedly killed the boy because he had shorted him on drug money (Thomas and Martin, 1996). The shooting should have rocked the Chicago neighborhood where it took place, except that this kind of thing happens all too often.

The lethal mix of children and guns has reached a crisis in the United States. Teenage boys are more likely to die of gunshot wounds than from all natural causes combined. The number of children dying from gunshot wounds and the number of children committing homicides continue to rise at alarming rates (McEnery, 1996).

Guns are now the weapon of choice for youth. As can be seen in the figure on the following page, gun homicides by juveniles have tripled since 1983, while homicides involving other weapons have declined. From 1983 through 1995, the proportion of homicides in which a juvenile used a gun increased from 55 percent to 80 percent (Snyder and Finnegan, 1997).

Disputes that would previously have ended in fist fights are now more likely to lead to shootings. A 1993 Louis Harris poll showed that 35 percent of children ages 6 to 12 fear their lives will be cut short by gun violence (Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., 1993). A 1990 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that one in five 9th through 12th graders reported carrying a weapon in the past month; one in five of those carried a firearm (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1991).

"No corner of America is safe from increasing levels of criminal violence, including violence committed by and against juveniles," Attorney General Janet Reno has observed. "Parents are afraid to let their children walk to school alone. Children hesitate to play in neighborhood playgrounds. The elderly lock themselves in their homes, and innocent Americans of all ages find their lives changed by the fear of crime" (Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996).

The number of murdered juveniles increased 47 percent between 1980 and 1994, according to figures from Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1996 Update on Violence (Snyder et al., 1996). The Summary, which cites data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, notes that from 1980 through 1994 an estimated 326,170 persons were murdered in the United States. Of these, 9 percent (30,200) were youth under age 18. While there was a 1-percent increase from 1980 through 1994 in the total number of murders, the rate of juveniles murdered increased from five per day to seven per day. Fifty-three percent of the juveniles killed in 1994 were teenagers ages 15 to 17, while 30 percent were younger than age 6. In 1994, one in five murdered juveniles was killed by a juvenile offender.

Recently, however, there has been good news. Between 1994 and 1995, juvenile arrests for murder declined 14 percent, resulting in the number of juvenile murder arrests in 1995 being 9 percent below the 1991 figure. Overall arrests for violent juvenile crime decreased 3 percent between 1994 and 1995 -- the first decline in 9 years. These efforts must continue, however, as even these reduced rates are substantially higher than 1986 levels (Snyder, 1997).

Often, teenagers turn guns on themselves. In 1991, 1,889 teens ages 15 to 19 committed suicide -- a rate of 11 per 100,000 (Allen-Hagen et al., 1994). Between 1980 and 1994, the suicide rate for 15- to 19-year-olds rose 29 percent, with an increase in firearms-related suicides accounting for 96 percent of the rise (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1996). The risk of suicide is five times greater for individuals living in households with guns than for those in households without guns (Kellerman et al., 1992).

Juvenile Gun Homicides
Gun homicides by juveniles have tripled since 1983, while homicides involving other weapons have declined.


From 1983 through 1995, the proportion of homicides in which a juvenile used a gun increased from 55 to 80 percent.

Source: Snyder, H.N. and T.A. Finnegan. 1997. Easy Access to the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-1995 (data presentation and analysis package). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

What is causing this epidemic of violence and how can it be stopped? The deterioration of the traditional family and the impact of drugs, gangs, Photo poverty, and violence in the media are among the factors cited as contributing to the violent behavior of today's teens. Many of these children -- victims and perpetrators -- come from one- or no-parent families (McEnery, 1996).

Guns are readily available to juveniles. Although Federal law mandates that a person must be at least 18 years old to purchase a shotgun or rifle, and at least 21 years old to buy a handgun, law enforcement officials and youth themselves report that buying guns illegally is relatively easy for juveniles. Increasingly, juveniles believe they need guns for protection or carry them as status symbols. As more guns appear in the community, a local arms race ensues.

This article describes some promising steps that have been taken to curb the violence endangering our youth and our communities. It also provides information about a number of initiatives that have focused on gun violence in particular.

U.S. Attorneys Join the Fight
Local, State, and national programs to get guns out of the hands of young people are being put in place. In a report to the Attorney General and the President, U.S. Attorneys outlined the following ways in which they are supporting State and local programs:

Bullet Disrupting the markets that provide guns to youth.
Bullet Taking guns out of the hands of young people through coordination with State and local law enforcement officials.
Bullet Working with State and local prosecutors to enhance enforcement of their laws.
Bullet Encouraging and providing financial support for State and local efforts to trace the sources of guns taken from juveniles.
Bullet Launching targeted enforcement efforts in places where young people should feel safe, such as their homes, schools, and recreation centers.
Bullet Participating in prevention efforts directed at juveniles in our communities through mentoring, adopt-a-school (in which schools are "adopted" by civic groups or businesses), and Neighborhood Watch programs.
Bullet Promoting increased personal responsibility and safety through public outreach and information on the consequences of juvenile handgun possession (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996).  

These approaches, also supported by other components of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), are critical elements of a comprehensive youth gun violence reduction strategy.

To advance the U.S. Attorneys' violence prevention efforts and to help States and local jurisdictions respond to the problem of juvenile firearms Photo violence, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) published Reducing Youth Gun Violence: An Overview of Programs and Initiatives (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996). This report provides information on a wide array of strategies -- from school-based prevention to gun market interception. In addition to program descriptions, the report includes a directory of youth gun violence prevention organizations and a bibliography of research, evaluation, and publications on youth and guns.

Promising Programs
Many State and local programs designed to take guns out of the hands of teenagers have proven successful. In the Kansas City (Missouri) Gun Experiment, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Kansas City Police Department worked with local agencies to focus law enforcement efforts on high-crime neighborhoods. Under this initiative, developed with Weed and Seed funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, traffic law violators were routinely stopped, as were youth violating curfews and individuals involved in other infractions of the law. During these stops, police looked for violations that established legal authority to search a car or pedestrian for illegal guns. These special gun-interception teams were 10 times more cost-effective than regular police patrols.

The success of the Kansas City Gun Experiment is striking. An evaluation funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that crime in the 80-block target neighborhood, which had a homicide rate 20 times the national average, was cut in half in 6 months. Significantly, the program did not merely displace crime to other locations. Gun crimes did not increase in any of the seven surrounding patrol beats. The active involvement of community and religious leaders in the development of the program resulted in broad support for the program in the community, which had objected to past police crackdowns on guns (Sherman et al., 1995).

In Boston, where juveniles in high-risk neighborhoods frequently carry guns, NIJ has launched a problem-solving project to devise, implement, and assess strategic interventions to disrupt illicit firearms markets and deter youth violence. Its initial focus was analyzing the supply and demand for guns. Strategic interventions by police, probation, and parole officers have presented gang members -- prevalent among both victims and offenders -- with a clear choice: Stop the flow of guns and stop the violence or face rapid, focused, and comprehensive law enforcement and corrections attention. Although it is too soon to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of this strategy, its immediate impact is encouraging; youth violence in Boston appears to have been substantially reduced (Kennedy, 1997).

NIJ's promising initiative in Boston was highlighted at OJJDP's August 1996 national satellite teleconference, Reducing Youth Gun Violence, which was viewed by more than 8,000 participants at 271 downlink sites. The teleconference, which is available on videotape from OJJDP's Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, also featured the Detroit-based Handgun Intervention Program, carried out by volunteers in Michigan's 36th District Court, and the Shock Mentor Program, a collaborative effort among Prince George's County, Maryland, Public Schools, the Washington, D.C., chapter of Concerned Black Men, Inc., and Prince George's Hospital Center.

Partnerships To Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence
Based on a review of research and programs conducted by OJJDP and summarized in Reducing Youth Gun Violence: An Overview of Programs and Initiatives, OJJDP has started a new initiative, Partnerships To Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence. This effort is intended to increase the effectiveness of existing youth gun violence reduction strategies by enhancing and coordinating prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies and by strengthening linkages among the community, law enforcement, and the juvenile justice system. Its comprehensive approach addresses three critical factors: juveniles' access to guns, the reasons young people carry guns, and the reasons they choose to use guns to resolve conflicts. Partnerships have been forged through recent OJJDP grants to the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, New York; the City of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana; the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Northwest Louisiana; and Youth ALIVE!, which services Oakland and Los Angeles, California.

OJJDP is funding an evaluation of Partnerships To Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence to document and analyze the process of community mobilization, planning, and collaboration needed to develop a comprehensive approach to combating youth gun violence.

The fundamental challenge in reducing juvenile firearm possession is to convince youth that they can survive in their neighborhoods without being armed. Community-based programs such as those listed above are working to dispel the perception by many juveniles that the authorities can neither protect them nor maintain order in their neighborhoods. A number of communities have implemented programs that address the risk of victimization, improve school safety, and foster a secure community environment.

Victimization and the Cycle of Violence
The experience of victimization by violence is far too common among children in America. A survey of inner-city high school students revealed that 45 percent had been threatened with a gun or shot at, and one in three had been beaten up on their way to school (Sheley and Wright, 1993). According to a survey released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child abuse and neglect nearly doubled between 1986 and 1993 (Sedlak and Broadhurst, 1996). Investigations by child protective services agencies in 49 States determined that more than 1 million children were victims of substantiated or indicated child abuse and neglect in 1995 (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1997).

OJJDP and NIJ have supported several studies focusing on this cycle of violence. The research indicates a relationship between experiences of childhood violence and subsequent delinquent behavior. OJJDP's Rochester (New York) Youth Development Study found that children who had been victims of violence were 24 percent more likely to report engaging in violent behavior as adolescents than those who had not been maltreated in childhood (Thornberry, 1994). An NIJ longitudinal study of childhood victimization found that child abuse increases the likelihood of future delinquency and adult criminality by nearly 40 percent (Widom, 1992).

With funding support from OJJDP, the New Haven (Connecticut) Department of Police Services and the Yale Child Study Center established the Child Development-Community Policing (CD-CP) program to address the adverse impact of continued exposure to violence on children and their families and to interrupt the cycle of violence affecting so many of our children. Reflecting New Haven's commendable commitment to community policing, the program brings law enforcement and mental health professionals together to help children who are victims, witnesses, and (in some instances) perpetrators of violent acts. The CD-CP program serves as a model for police-mental health partnerships across the Nation and is being replicated under the CD-CP grant in Buffalo, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon (Marans and Berkman, 1997). In fiscal year 1997, OJJDP is enhancing the CD-CP program to provide training to school personnel, probation and parole officers, and prosecutors.

Public Information Campaigns
Researchers have found that long-term public education campaigns on violence prevention, family education, alcohol and drug prevention, and gun safety curriculums in schools are effective in helping to reduce delinquency (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1992; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1991; Christoffel, 1991; DeJong, 1994). This may be especially true for education campaigns to prevent gun violence, because public awareness of positive activities can reduce fear, which is a powerful factor in juveniles choosing to carry guns. Involving teenagers in the development and operation of these programs is a critical ingredient to a program's success (Treanor and Bijlefeld, 1989). The public and private sectors, including the media, also can play significant roles in program design and implementation.

The goal of public information and education efforts should be threefold: to change public perceptions about youth violence and guns, to educate the community about the problem, and to convince youth and adults that their involvement is essential to the success of any program to curb possession and use of guns by youth. Public information campaigns can empower citizens to reach informed judgments about effective ways of preventing firearms violence by and against juveniles.

Public information campaigns to reduce gun violence should:

Bullet Provide accurate information to key policymakers about the causes, nature, and extent of juvenile delinquency and victimization, particularly gun-related violence.
Bullet Communicate that juvenile gun violence and victimization are preventable.
Bullet Publicize strategies and results of successful programs and encourage their replication.
Bullet Motivate individuals, government agencies, and community service organizations to work collaboratively to address the problem as a key to ensuring public safety.

A number of public information campaigns have been launched or are being developed. In California, the statewide Campaign To Prevent Handgun Violence Against Kids has produced 30-second television public service announcements (PSA's) in English and Spanish; communicated critical information on youth gun violence to elected officials, media leaders, and public agencies; and received thousands of calls through its hotline and information service (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996).

OJJDP and the Bureau of Justice Assistance are funding a public-private partnership to create and market PSA's with a three-part message designed to persuade young people to turn away from violence, educate parents and other community residents about solutions to youth violence, and show teens, parents, and youth-serving professionals how they can become part of the solution.

As disturbing as youth gun violence is, it need not be inevitable. It is preventable -- as many programs throughout the United States are beginning to demonstrate. With the public alarmed about the problem, public servants and practitioners might bear in mind the Greek philosopher Solon's words, "There can be no justice until those of us who are unaffected by crime become as indignant as those who are."

Article References

Stuart Greenbaum is president of Greenbaum Public Relations, a Sacramento, California, firm that specializes in public interest concerns, including high-risk youth services. A 20-year veteran of public safety communication, Mr. Greenbaum is a cofounder and past communications director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University.


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