While the gun violence community (GVP) approaches the question of reducing gun violence from many different perspectives, there does seem to be a basic consensus around the idea that the 120,000+ gun injuries (more than 35,000 fatal) suffered each year by Americans can be substantially lessened by keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ This basic approach was embodied in the first, major effort at gun regulation, the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68), which stipulated that certain individuals who were felons or fugitives, among other unsavory types, shouldn’t be allowed to get their hands on guns.
Over the years a few more ‘wrong hands’ categories have been added to the list, as well as attempts to make it more difficult for wrong-handed people to get access to guns which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is what was behind the FBI-NICS background check system implemented under the Clinton Administration and has become the great GVP battleground over the extension of background checks to secondary sales.
Despite the stupidities of Gun-nut Nation regarding the uselessness of background checks, I’m willing to bet that the NICS system has probably been somewhat responsible for the more than 50% decrease in gun violence between 1995 and 2005, but while the system has become more efficient over the last ten years and secondary background checks are now conducted in 20 states, the overall rate of gun violence has plateaued over the last ten years and now appears to be edging back up. So perhaps it’s time to re-examine the entire ‘wrong hands’ approach to dealing with gun violence, if only because more ‘bad hands’ seem to be getting their hands on guns every year.
The basic assumption that lies behind ‘wrong hands’ is the idea that people who behave in violent ways will become even more violent if they get their hands on a gun. But the problem is that even if we had airtight reporting of all criminal behavior, even if the NICS database contained an absolutely complete and comprehensive list of everyone convicted of a violent crime, particularly crimes related to domestic abuse, these records only reflect the behavior of adults, which is way too late to predict who might be a threat to themselves or others when/if they got their hands on a gun.
The life-cycle of gun access has been studied by some of our most eminent public health and criminology researchers and they all agree: guns start showing up in the ‘wrong hands’ beginning around age twelve. Because a real gun in the hands of any twelve-year old is, by definition, a gun in the ‘wrong hands,’ but that’s when they start showing up. And the kid who starts carrying a gun to show off at twelve will be carrying it to use it when he’s sixteen. And he will have used it or had another gun used against him over the next ten years. The studies that confirm the recidivism of gun violence by perpetrators and victims are conclusive in this respect.
But here’s the problem. By the time the kid with a gun reaches the age of sixteen, he no longer can be found. And he can’t be found because he dropped out of school at age fourteen. And now he’s wandering the nabes or the hood and he supports himself by doing things that require carrying or using a gun. The city of Springfield, MA has a gun-homicide rate more than three times the national rate. It also has a school drop-out rate of 40%. Who’s watching these kids? Nobody’s watching these kids.
Youngsters don’t wake up one day in the 9th grade and announce they are quitting school. These are kids with all kinds of behavioral and learning issues which appear by the 2nd or 3rd grade. And then, ten or fifteen years later, they get shot or go to jail for shooting someone else. Want to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands?’ Those hands are attached to someone jumping around in the classroom right down the hall.