In 1972 a brilliant scholar, Marvin Wolfgang, published Delinquency in a Birth Cohort, which tracked the lives of 10,000 males born in inner-city Philadelphia in 1945, and through a combination of school records and social service data, he was able to account for the whereabouts of nearly all his research subjects between their 10th and 18th birthdays. Wolfgang was looking for patterns which might be predictive of delinquency among juveniles and serious crime among adults. What he found was roughly one-third of his sample had some contact with juvenile authorities with half of them coming to the attention of police or social service only one time, while less than 5% of the 10,000 male teens ended up as ‘serial’ delinquents who were also the group which committed the most violent crimes.
What Wolfgang did not consider (because it was beyond the scope of his work) was that most of these youthful, serial offenders were exhibiting anti-social behavior by the ages of five or six and becoming delinquents by ages seven or eight. Study after study has demonstrated that the earlier a child is referred for delinquent behavior, the greater the chance that this behavior will become chronic and lead to serious crime.
These kids become what we used to call ‘troublemakers’ in the early grades, by the 3rd or 4th grade they are often pushed into a separate class or isolated group, by the 6th or 7th grade they are considered violence-prone and spend more time in detention than learning how to read or write and by 9th grade they have effectively dropped out of school. Marvin Wolfgang began studying the adolescent years of these kids; by that time the damage was already done.
These are also the kids who start getting their hands on guns, according to Alan Lizotte’s superb work, when they are 12 years old. By the time they are 14-15, the gun has become a tool of their trade. In 2014 I interviewed 61 adolescent inmates at a youth jail who were all confined for serious crimes (read: drugs and possession of guns.) Inside they were as clean and law-abiding as you could imagine, they all said they would return to ‘the life’ when they got back outside. I asked them two questions: (1). How did they get a gun? (2). Did they believe that having a gun increased risk? The answer to the first question was: ‘they around;’ to the second they all believed that their risk was much greater if they didn’t have a gun.
Of the 115,000+ fatal and non-fatal gun injuries that occur each year, young men ages 15-25, disproportionately non-white, account for two-thirds of the total, and if you subtract hunting accidents and gun suicides that are rational, life-ending decisions for the very old set, we end up with more than 75% of all gun violence being committed by a population whose propensity for violent behavior was being exhibited and witnessed before they were ten years old. If some way could be found to isolate this population from access to the most efficient consumer item which can be used to injure someone else, our gun-violence rate would fall somewhere right in the middle of the OECD.
Unfortunately, the discussion about this issue, which should be held within the gun violence prevention (GVP) community, is currently owned by whomever writes advertising copy for the NRA. Every time a pandering idiot like Dana Loesch talks about the God-given ‘right’ to protect yourself from ‘street thugs,’ she reinforces a false narrative that has promoted gun sales for the past twenty years.
When it comes to reducing gun violence where we have failed most tragically is not keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands’ per se, but not intervening in the lives of children who exhibit delinquent behavior at an early age, then end up in the street, then end up working for the local dope dealer, then end up at the wrong end of a gun. And for such kids, either end of the gun is the wrong end.