Can We Keep Guns away from Kids?

The Brady Bill and an assault weapon ban are finally law. Congress may add a few frills like fee hikes for federally licensed gun dealers and tax hikes on ammunition. But the killing in our core cities, especially the killing of young black men by other young black men, will continue almost as if nothing has happened.

Yet something must surely be done. Youth gun homicide has risen sharply since the mid-1980s. It is now higher for teenagers than for the general population, and far higher for black teenage males: in 1990, roughly 100 killed for every 100,000 between the ages of 15 and 19 (versus 9.7 for every 100,000 white males in the same age group). The gun homicide rate conceals a mass of nonfatal woundings--some 5.7 for every death. And the problem is getting worse, not better.

The reality on the street is even starker. A 1993 national poll by LH Research found that 30 percent of black adults know a child who was wounded or killed by another child with a gun. Drive through Washington, D.C., within rifleshot of the White House, and look at all the young black men with canes--they weren't maimed playing football. In Cabrini Green, one of Chicago's appalling high-rise housing projects, I have talked with mothers who will not let children out of their apartments except to escort them to and from school. In these communities many children do not talk about "when" they will grow up; they talk about "if." Tulane University researchers Joseph Sheley and James Wright recently surveyed high school students in four troubled minority communities--more than a third carried guns at least occasionally (One student, asked what caliber gun he owned, pulled it out of his clothes to check.) Research by Carolyn and Richard Block suggests that nearly all of Chicago's recent increase in gang-related killing is attributable to bigger, better handguns.


Can we do anything to keep guns out of kids' hands? Tighter gun control alone will not work. In most cities with serious juvenile gun problems, the purchase and possession of handguns by juveniles are already illegal. The shootings and deaths have increased just the same. Forty-one percent of Sheley and Wright's students said obtaining guns was "no trouble at all," and they paid well below retail prices for the guns they bought on the street. Increasing penalties for violating gun laws won't help much either. The effectiveness of such laws depends on the commitment of police, prosecutors, and the courts, as well as the availability of prison space to back them up. The first is difficult to obtain (police, prosecutors, and courts tend to adjust their actions to the nuances of each case); the second, prison space, is in increasingly short supply And many juvenile gun offenders think and care little about even severe punishment.

A better target for our efforts would be the black market in guns, which so far has received little serious attention. Federal gun legislation mainly affects new weapons sold by federally licensed dealers. The laws do not reach many older guns, nor small-scale private dealers, and they do not create the recordkeeping and transfer protocols required to monitor and control the movement of guns. Measures to correct these deficiencies are from time to time proposed in Congress, where they die. Gun and anti-gun activists conclude, alternatively, that there is no point in attempting to control firearms, or that there is little point to anything short of outright bans. This logjam is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

At the local level, the illegal gun trade proceeds unhindered by anything approaching a concerted police response. Strategies and tactics routinely deployed against other threats to public safety are strikingly absent from the gun-crime landscape. Given the opportunity, police are willing to make firearms arrests, but such charges tend to be incidental to other enforcement activities.

Departments almost never give the black market in firearms the same priority they do narcotics or prostitution. They rarely take advantage of opportunities to identify and penetrate the gun trade by back-tracing illegal weapons used in crimes, demanding information about weapons sources as a condition of plea bargaining, or mounting stings or undercover operations. And they are rarely sophisticated about working with federal authorities on gun cases. "If we find a kid with a gun, we're happy to settle for a conviction," says Jim Jordan, the Boston Police Department's Director of Policy Development. "We don't even ask where he got it."

This is quite peculiar. The black market in guns, as my colleague Mark Moore has shown, is essentially local. Guns are readily available through local sources: they can be stolen from homes or gun dealers, or purchased from licensed and unlicensed dealers and resold. Even operations to move weapons from states with loose gun laws to states with strict ones typically consist of only a few people with a car (or a gym bag and a bus ticket). Many black-market gun dealers buy guns from thieves and resell them as they would any other hot commodity, As a panel from the National Academy of Sciences noted in a 1993 report, Understanding and Preventing Violence, this is the kind of crime local police, whose strength and number dwarf federal enforcement capacity, should make their business.

It is thus encouraging to see, for instance, the New York City Police Department's recent decision to mount undercover operations against illegal gun dealers. But no practicable amount of ordinary police work will shut these markets down. Departments must break the classic enforcement mold.


Hope lies in a new set of market disruption approaches developed in community policing circles and deployed with great effectiveness against street drug markets. Over the past decade, several cities plagued by serious street drug problems have successfully interfered with street trafficking so that the markets ceased to function.

For example, police in Tampa, Florida mounted a model operation known as QUAD (Quick Uniform Attack on Drugs) to combat a widespread crack problem on the streets. They made it difficult for buyers to find dealers by intensifying enforcement to keep dealers on the move. They used community allies to locate and report new street dealing sites and drug stashes. Posing as dealers, police pulled "reverse stings" and arrested buyers, making other buyers feel vulnerable. Officers interfered with business by loitering around dealing sites, used local ordinances to clear crowds from known trafficking areas, and cooperated with city authorities to knock down abandoned houses and shut down businesses used for dealing. Six months into QUAD, public dealing was virtually extinct. The disruption strategy had caused, in relatively short order, the near collapse of the street market.

Gun markets are more surreptitious than drug markets. But a disruption strategy for the youth gun market could still succeed.

Since gun transactions among adults are not necessarily crimes, there is no easy way to tell whether a seller, a buyer, or a particular transaction is illegal. But kids caught buying and carrying guns, and people caught selling guns to them, are prima facie lawbreakers. Equally important, public feeling on youth and firearms is universally negative. Illegal firearms transactions among adults do not always draw public outrage or official action. If a gun dealer illegally sells a weapon to a middle-class suburbanite, the community tends to show tolerance. Even the deadly use of illegal weapons can win considerable support. But nobody thinks kids should have guns. Measures to prevent kids from getting firearms would be popular with officials and community members. If disruption strategies can be designed, communities will help.

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To successfully disrupt the youth market we must understand why kids get guns. This means going beyond the three most common theories, which are increasingly inadequate to explain what's happening in the inner city.

The drug trade. Where there is serious drug dealing there will be guns. There is no question that the rise in juvenile black male homicide that began in the mid-1980s coincided with the rise of crack cocaine. In many cities, the crack market is characterized by a young minority work force and open-air trafficking with a high degree of turf-related and other violence.

But the close connection between youth violence and the crack trade sometimes dissolves upon closer examination. The Blocks research in Chicago suggests that very little of that city's spiraling youth violence rate is drug-related. It seems, rather, to be turf-related, with recent increases in killings due to gangs' use of more powerful guns. In Richmond, Virginia, Russell Boxley and his colleagues found that the trafficking issues provoking drug-market killings were not significantly different from other kinds of disputes that often sparked violence among the same groups of people.

While levels of youth violence and drug trafficking increased together during the mid-198Os, more recently the trends have diverged. In Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., youth homicide continued to increase in the early 1990s even as the drug trade diminished. Today, the fact that so many homicides and assaults seem inexplicable is what most disturbs communities. Kids are killing each other over jewelry, sidelong glances, and, at times, for no apparent reason at all.

Gangs. Another popular explanation for the spread of violence centers on youth gangs, some engaged in drug-trafficking and some not, using guns to protect turf and to settle disputes. But what is a gang? Gangs range from sophisticated economic organizations (some of which appear to eschew violence except for business purposes), to moderately organized ethnic groups, to ad-hoc bands of friends. Since they tend to come to public attention only when they commit violent crimes, and since officials call any affiliated group that commits violence a gang, "gang violence" is at times a tautology.

A more important problem is causality: do gangs cause violence, or does violence cause gangs? Kids in violent areas band together for support and protection. Having done so, they are obliged to stand up for one another, and they become actors and targets in cyclic exchanges of violence. The ready availability of guns, then, must be a significant contributing factor to the creation of gangs and gang violence. Measures to keep guns out of kids' hands might serve to moderate both.

Culture of violence. Most recently, attention has focused on cultural factors, such as the media and the intergenerational impact of domestic violence and sexual abuse. This would explain the appalling "senseless" acts that seem more and more common, and link them to an adult world that exhibits many of the same features.

Many public health analysts use this frame. Deborah Prothrow-Stith and others have written powerfully of how movies, television, music, and parents encourage youth violence. Their research points to the inability of many adolescents to imagine nonviolent conflict resolutions; it shows how youth culture encourages and rewards violent behavior. But these arguments do not explain how presumably long-standing cultural factors could account for the explosive rise in youth homicide. Nor do they explain causality. Is the youth demand for guns driven by this cultural appetite for violence? Or is youth violence so bad in part because guns are so prevalent and have the effect of polarizing groups and raising the risks of violent behavior?


Terror is what ties these accounts together. It appears that we have entered into a distinct second phase of the impact of drug trafficking on communities. In the first phase, trafficking and competition among traffickers caused high levels of violence, in a pattern reminiscent of Prohibition. While appalling, this violence was fundamentally instrumental: it generally served or emerged from business interests, albeit illegal ones.

That violence, however, profoundly increased the fear in affected communities, which in turn brought more weaponry. Traffickers, many of them young and not particularly measured, armed themselves. The streets were the marketplace, so business disputes were settled in public. There were no safe havens--nonplayers had nowhere to escape. Many part-time drug dealers became full-time gun owners. The trade was ruled by the same self-regulation that governs all illicit enterprises: those who offend get hurt. But since traffickers were numerous and dispersed throughout the community, that gangland ethos came to govern even more ordinary interactions as well.

In short, many of the newly armed boys (and girls) in the 'hood are not depraved. They are scared--and rightly so. Sheley and Wright found more than 40 percent of their high school students had been shot at or threatened with a gun; nearly half knew schoolmates who had been fired on. Not surprisingly, self-defense was far and away the main reason these kids armed themselves. In the 1993 LH Research poll, 33 percent of black adults reported knowing "a child who was so worried he or she got a gun for self protection."

The more kids arm themselves, the greater the chance of shootings, and the more readily kids arm themselves. Mix in youthful impulsiveness and the result is spur-of-the-moment mayhem. "The scariest thing," a Detroit high school senior told Carl Taylor, "is that you never know when they're going to get into an argument and start shooting."

In such an environment the "senseless" shootings that have become commonplace should come as no surprise. These kids are armed and edgy. They believe they cannot walk away from a fight without irretrievably losing face. They are surrounded by violence, and feel that they have few alternatives. They cannot get out of Dodge, nor is anybody making them check their guns at the edge of town.

Many of the kids involved in this life do not really want to live it. Less readily avail-able weaponry would ease tensions and diminish the deadliness of incidents. It might lead to clearer divisions between dangerous offenders and other less committed users, and allow responses more appropriately tailored to each class. A weapon-centered approach is certainly not a perfect or complete response to youth violence, but it would facilitate and reinforce other approaches.

Can we design such a program? Yes, but it will take custom-designed strategies, developed and implemented primarily by local authorities. Different local markets require different disruption plans. Patterns of acquisition and distribution are different in Georgia, which has few restrictions on gun sales, and Massachusetts, which is heavily regulated; or in Chicago, where the killing is largely gang-related, and Washington, where it has more to do with drugs. The strategy must be comprehensive, with mutually reinforcing tactics tailored to local circumstances. Stiff penalties for selling and buying, measures to reduce gun movement from the legitimate to the black market, and measures to reduce youths' fear are unlikely to have much impact if they are pursued in piecemeal fashion.

Central to making those strategies work will be detailed, timely information on particular youth gun markets. Among the questions we need to ask: How do kids acquire guns in a particular city? Why do they do it? Do they buy from the same sources as adult offenders? Is there a distinct illicit gun market, or are guns passed along channels also used for drugs and other contraband? Are there many sources of supply, or relatively few? How open is the trade? Are sellers bold or wary? What makes them willing and unwilling to sell? Are there different supply channels to hardcore and casual consumers? Are particular weapons in vogue? How does information about sources of supply reach consumers, and how widely is it known?

Although police departments already have a great deal of scattered information on gun markets, they seldom put it together. A first step would be to consolidate existing information in a fashion that supports problem solving.

From them, police could tap other sources of information, including:

Kids. If youth gun markets are as vigorous as they appear to be--they often include rental markets for busy weekends, parties, and such--their workings will be fairly widely known. Some knowledgeable youth, both players and nonplayers, will be willing to talk if police can ensure their safety. Departments need to develop new relationships with young people to learn what they need to know.

Offenders. Criminals are useful sources of information. In Tampa, interviews with jailed criminals helped convince the department that suppressing street crack markets would reduce crime and disorder. Boston's gang unit has found gang members willing to share information useful for understanding and sometimes preventing gang violence. Black market gun dealers and kids who have acquired weapons illegally are rich sources of information.

Parents and other community sources. Parents in communities troubled by youth gun violence are potentially powerful sources of information. They should be encouraged to help the community set a "zero tolerance" standard. Some are likely to cooperate with police if they think their children will be treated well, and if they can do so safely. Departments should explore ways to build working relationships with such parents. School security authorities, teachers, youth social service workers, and church leaders could also develop information on the youth gun market. Some will be willing to cooperate with police if their own interests are protected.

Gun dealers and gun regulators. Legitimate gun dealers may have information about how kids obtain guns and which adult intermediaries deal guns to kids. Black market gun dealers may be willing to inform on rivals or bargain with information when facing prosecution. Federal authorities may have information useful to local police, as well as the investigative and enforcement capacity to support local information gathering.


Although strategies would differ from city to city one can sketch a hypothetical operation. To block access to gun supplies, police could work with parents and kids to identify owners of gun stockpiles. (Parental authorization would be sufficient to allow police searches of houses and apartments, perhaps during an initial amnesty.) Private and nonprofit partners could offer residents in high-burglary areas trigger locks and advice on storing firearms securely, Federal authorities could trace illegal weapons to licensed vendors, and put them under scrutiny or arrange for their licenses to be revoked. Prosecutors and courts could work to ensure swift and stiff punishments for adult "straws" selling to kids.

To attack the security of sellers, we need state laws making straws who sell guns to kids jointly liable for crimes committed with those guns. Police could work under-cover and cultivate confidential informants to buy guns illegally, They could also offer juvenile offenders caught with guns plea bargains based on naming their suppliers. To attack the security of buyers, police could mount stings, offer black market dealers plea bargains based on fingering clients, work with parole and probation officers to intensify supervision of kids who are court-involved for gun offenses, and negotiate protocols for street searches with representatives of troubled communities. (To avoid antagonizing the community, these should be aimed at enlisting local support for the exercise of existing police powers.)

To deter black marketers from selling to kids, authorities could mount comprehensive enforcement efforts against drug and fencing organizations known to be selling guns to kids (thereby sending a signal that such dealing will trigger attacks on all fronts of one's business). States could legislate asset forfeiture for dealing guns to minors. Related suppression of the street drug trade would take money out of the pockets of kids likely to buy and use guns. Raising the costs and lowering the benefits of the youth gun trade might dissuade new entrants into the business. To the extent that stores, bars, and other businesses were fronting for youth dealers, civil abatement proceedings could shut them down.

Fresh insights and strategies are likely to emerge both from close examination of particular markets and from experience gamed as particular disruption strategies evolve. Richer information and operational experience could reveal unexpected opportunities.

In Tampa, for instance, equipping officers with digital beepers that allowed rapid, personal, but clandestine contact between the police and community supporters turned out to be critical to a robust flow of timely operational intelligence about street markets. And new tactics were developed during the operation that nobody could possibly have imagined ahead of time. Street dealers, for instance, generally hide stashes not on their persons but nearby--in a tree or a patch of tall grass--in case they are robbed or arrested. QUAD officers started getting calls from neighborhood sources who observed the dealers closely and could pinpoint the stashes. Police simply seized the drugs, strangling the dealers' cash flow. If we look hard, we are bound to find equivalent weaknesses in youth gun markets.


The more kids' fear can be reduced, the less they will want guns and the more effective market-disruption strategies will be. Three ideas deserve particular mention. First, street drug markets and gang disputes create high levels of violence, disorder, and fear. Cities should explore QUAD-type operations to shut down drug markets, and work with kids and others close to the street to prevent gang violence. Police units like the Boston antigang violence squad and grass-roots groups like Clementine Barfield's Save Our Sons and Daughters in Detroit have had success preventing individual incidents from growing into vendettas. Second, criminal justice resources should be focused on taking repeat violent juvenile gun offenders off the streets. Third, some community policing departments are developing innovative means to identify and address fear. In one model operation in Baltimore County, officers defused a budding racial conflict by separating bus stops that brought warring groups of black and white kids into regular contact, then worked with both groups to prevent further trouble. More along these lines is possible.

No one of these measures is likely to make much of an impact. The power of market disruption and allied approaches would come from multiple attacks, and the interaction of multiple attacks, to the incentives and free functioning of the market. The mounting of the operation would itself be a deterrent; in many jurisdictions buying and selling in the youth black market is a largely risk-free enterprise, and a clever operation (including a community actively mobilized against guns) could hope to raise participants' sense of vulnerability considerably.

It is too much to hope that any of this would end illegal dealing in guns. But an effective youth market strategy might serve to split the adult market off from the youth market, leaving illicit dealers still in the gun business but unwilling, or substantially less willing, to deal to kids. It might, along with other efforts to fight fear, arrest the spiraling juvenile arms race. Given the juvenile death toll, and the special contribution of armed kids to the disruption of troubled communities, that would be a success.

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