Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

Youth and Guns

Youth in America today have access to, are using, and are being victimized by firearms more than ever before. According to a recent report on juvenile justice legislative initiatives conducted by NCSL, deaths caused by juveniles using guns increased fourfold during the 10 years between 1984 and 1994. In addition, the heightened accessibility of large-caliber guns has increased the likelihood of a victim of an assault being seriously injured or killed as a result of a gunshot wound.160 While a broader debate over gun control is being waged in this country, discussion concerning juveniles and firearms has centered upon handguns and the need to enact greater limitations on juveniles' ownership, possession, and use of these weapons.

States have responded to this heightened accessibility by maintaining and strengthening current laws restricting the possession, licensing, storage, and transfer of guns to juveniles and by enacting tough new laws for youth who bring guns to school. Many States also have enacted laws that allow for prosecution in adult criminal court for those juvenile offenders who allegedly perpetrate certain violent crimes with the use of a firearm.

Possession, Licensing, and Transfer of Firearms

State laws typically restrict a juvenile's possession of various firearms based on the age of the juvenile, the activity for which the gun is issued, and the juvenile's previous adjudication as delinquent, if applicable. A survey of State laws enacted through the 1994 legislative sessions found that 18 States restrict possession of handguns by youth under the age of 18. Another 14 States prohibit the possession of all firearms by persons under age 18, with various exceptions, including involvement in authorized recreational or educational activities or participation in firearm safety courses.161 In 1994, the State of Maine enacted a law that allows youth more than 10 years of age to possess firearms when hunting if they are accompanied by a parent or another adult approved by a parent or guardian.162

Adjudicated delinquents are prevented from possessing firearms in 22 States, with restrictions usually placed on those youth who were adjudicated delinquent for acts that would be considered felonious offenses if they had been committed by an adult. Other States prohibit possession of a firearm for a specific period of time (usually 10 years) after an offender's adjudication or release from juvenile detention, while other possession restrictions remain in place until the Governor or a court orders the restoration of the right to possess a firearm.163 Still other measures, including 1994 enactments in Arizona and Delaware, provide an enhanced penalty for juveniles previously adjudicated delinquent if they are found in possession of a firearm.164

Restricting licensing and imposing liability for the transfer -- by sale, gift, or loan -- of a firearm to a youth are other tactics States have used to keep firearms out of the hands of children. At least 35 States regulate the age at which a person may obtain a license to carry certain types of firearms, while 43 prohibit the transfer of firearms to minors, with specific exceptions. Many of these latter States' laws allow for enhanced penalties when an individual is found guilty of more than one transfer offense.165

Some States have taken action to hold parents liable when youth gain access to a family firearm. These types of "safe storage" or "child access prevention" laws have been enacted with increasing frequency in recent State legislative sessions in an effort to promote accountability when family firearms are not stored securely. According to a legislative analysis compiled by Handgun Control, Inc., 13 States in 1995Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington -- had enacted legislation of this sort.166

Gun-Free Schools and Transfer Provisions

The creation of "gun-free schools" and "safety zones" are yet other ways States have, in recent years, protected children, teachers, and school staff from gun violence on school grounds. Statistics compiled by the National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health indicate that gun violence on school grounds has become increasingly prevalent and disruptive. Examples of these statistics include:

bullet The number of guns confiscated in California public schools doubled from 1985 to 1988. High schools experienced the greatest increase in the number of confiscations, but more guns were found at all grade levels, including elementary school.
bullet In a national survey conducted in the late 1980's, one of every thirty-six 10th-grade boys said they had carried a handgun to school in the past year. One in every one hundred boys brought that gun to school every day. In one U.S. city, one out of every fifteen 11th-grade boys had carried a handgun to school at some point.
bullet In a survey of 10 high schools in four States, 15 percent of inner-city high school students said they were scared at school almost all the time.167

A State survey of laws affecting juvenile access to firearms identified several types of statutes under which weapons possession in schools or safety zones is criminalized. The most common type of statute, in place in at least 33 States, prohibits the possession of a weapon on school property or in a safety zone and provides punishments for violations whether or not the offender knowingly possesses the weapon in that restricted area.168 As a result of legislative action taken in the 1995 session, such a statute recently was enacted in Tennessee, where students are prohibited from possessing unauthorized firearms on school property. Policymakers in Delaware in that same year created the crime of "possession of a weapon in a safe-school recreation zone," which forbids possessing a firearm on or within 1,000 feet of school property and school vehicles.169 Other laws that restrict the use of guns on school property or within a safety zone include punishing the knowing possession of a firearm on school property or in a safety zone, punishing those who intend to use firearms on school property, and prohibiting the discharge or attempted discharge of a firearm on school grounds or in a safety zone.170

Penalties for violation of a gun-free school provision are varied. A popular sanction in the past 2 years includes suspension or expulsion of a student for possessing weapons on school grounds. A majority of the States' laws -- 19 of which were enacted in 1995 -- mandate expulsion of a student found carrying a weapon on school property.171 For example, the State of Washington passed a law in 1995 that requires a 1-year expulsion of students who have been found possessing a firearm on elementary or secondary school premises,172 while a similar law enacted by policymakers in Oregon in 1996 mandates expulsion for a year when students bring, use, or possess weapons at school or at interscholastic activities or events.173 A new law in Illinois provides that a student suspended from school for various acts of delinquency, including possession of a weapon, shall not be permitted to transfer to or attend classes at another school in the district until the term of the suspension or expulsion expires.174

Other punishments include suspending the driver's permit of a youth found in violation of a gun-free school zone law. In at least seven States -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Utah -- a youth may have his or her driver's license suspended if found possessing a firearm on school grounds.175

It should be noted that statutes of this type generally have several exceptions or defenses to prosecution. The most common exceptions are for government agents, students, and staff who are participating in lawful, educational activities. Other exceptions include an individual possessing a firearm with special permission from school authorities, an individual who has a firearm that is safely secured in a motor vehicle that is on school property, an individual who is on private property within the safety zone, an individual who is hunting lawfully, and an individual who has a valid permit to possess a firearm.176

Another popular sanction in recent years allows juveniles to be transferred to criminal court when suspected of committing certain serious and violent acts with a gun. Although every State provides some mechanism for children to be transferred to criminal court for habitually perpetrating crimes or committing specific crimes of violence, several States allow juveniles to be tried in adult court for committing weapons offenses as well. For example, a 1995 law in Nevada allows 14-year-old youth who commit an offense that would be considered a felony if committed by an adult to be transferred to an adult criminal court jurisdiction if the offense in question involved the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon.177 In Indiana, Mississippi, and Oregon, a youth must be prosecuted as an adult if he or she violates a firearm law, while laws in Arkansas, Kansas, and the District of Columbia allow for the transfer of juveniles of statutorily specified ages to be transferred to adult criminal court for violating gun-free school zones.178

Finally, some States are trying to encourage youth to surrender their weapons in an effort to get guns off the streets. A 1996 law in New York creates immunity from prosecution for unlawful possession of a firearm when an individual voluntarily surrenders the weapon to the superintendent of the State police or a designee.179

160. NCSL Legislator's Guide, supra note 33, at Emerging Issues.

161. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 33.

162. Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 7107-A (West Supp. 1996).

163. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 33.

164. Id. at 35.

165. Id. at 35­36.

166. 1995: The First 6 Months, The Monitor of Federal and State Gun Control Legislation (Handgun Control, Inc., Washington, D.C.), July 1995, at 2.

167. National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health, Firearm Facts (Laurie Duker ed., n.d.).

168. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 37.

169. 1995: The First 6 Months, supra note 166, at 9, 15.

170. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 37.

171. NCSL Legislator's Guide, supra note 33, at Emerging Issues.

172. 1995: The First 6 Months, supra note 166, at 16.

173. Or. Rev. Stat. § 339.115 (Supp. 1996).

174. 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/2­3 to ­13a (West 1996).

175. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 37.

176. Id. at 38.

177. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 62.080 (Supp. 1996).

178. Model Handgun Code, supra note 79, at 38.

179. N.Y. Penal Law § 265.20 (McKinney Supp. 1997).

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