In February the Center for American Progress, which is Washington’s pre-eminent liberal think tank, jumped into the gun debate by holding a national conference attended by all the usual suspects (Bloomberg, Coalition Against Gun Violence, et. al.,) and issuing a report which described a “crisis” of youth gun violence. The report is basically old wine in a new bottle and doesn’t really say anything that can’t be found in any number of other gun control reports, but since CAP often defines the issues that sooner or later end up spearheading the liberal legislative agenda, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the details, which I’m sure have also been read with interest at the headquarters of the NRA.
According to the CAP report, of everyone killed by guns each year, one in five was 24 years old or younger, making gun death the second most common form of morbidity for this age group, surpassed only by motor vehicle accidents. Actually, the number and rate of guns deaths has been pretty steady or declining slightly since 2000, while car accident deaths for people under age 25 has dropped by nearly 30% during the same period. On the other hand, vehicle deaths held steady and actually increased between 1990 and 2000, whereas young gun deaths declined more than 20% during that same period. So first it was gun deaths that declined significantly for ten years and then stabilized, then car deaths dropped and likewise stabilized, with the two trends running very similar numbers since 2010.
Why was there such a significant decline in young gun deaths between 1994 and 1999? The truth is, we don’t know. Even though homicides usually account for less than 3% of all violent crimes, they tend to follow other crime trends and violent crime in the United States dropped significantly in every category between 1993 and 1999. Why did this happen? There are lots of theories out there, from aggressive policing to increased jail populations, to removing lead from paint, less unwanted babies after Roe vs. Wade, and God knows what else. Perhaps the decline in violent crime occurred for all those reasons, but the truth is that we simply don’t know.
One thing we do know is that the decline in gun violence before 2000 and its stabilization in the years since then occurred in the absence of any new gun control legislation at all. The NICS background check system wasn’t operating in any comprehensive sense until 1998, which is when the decline in gun violence began to slow down. For that matter, while the authors of the CAP report bemoan the fact that gun deaths are “failing to go down,” one could turn this completely around and wonder why gun deaths haven’t gone back up? This is a particularly vexing question given the fact that gun violence remains stable at a time when more guns are being manufactured and sold than at any time in the history of American small arms.
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that a group of Millennials came together to organize a grass-roots movement aimed at their peers, particularly the college-age population, is a wonderful antidote to the fear-mongering and glorification of the “armed citizen” that the NRA cynically uses to promote gun sales. And maybe the Millennials will be the first generation since my generation (I’m a pre-Boomer) to once again embrace the traditional notions of guns as necessary for hunting and sport but not much else.
On the other hand, I hope that the CAP and its legislative followers won’t just seize on this document to promote yet another round of political hand-wringing that will no doubt result in little, if anything, getting done. I’m all for solutions to public health issues whose origins, incidence and impact we truly understand. We know how many people are killed by guns every year, but I have yet to see a convincing study that explains why some people who have access to guns point them at themselves or others and pull the trigger, but most of the gun-owning population leaves the gun alone. Like Walter Mosley says, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”