Youth, Guns, and Violent Crime

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Young people are overrepresented as both victims and perpetrators of violence. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that recent cohorts of youth have been composed of "superpredators" who have little regard for human life. The evidence, however, suggests that other factors are responsible for recent increases in youth gun violence.

This article analyzes the extent and causes of youth violence in the United States, paying particular attention to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when rates of homicide and robbery committed by youth rose to extremely high levels. Examination of trends for these crimes shows that:

* The increase in violence in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s was due primarily to an increase in violent acts committed by people under age 20. Similarly, dramatic declines in homicide and robbery in recent years are attributable primarily to a decline in youth violence.

* The increase in youth homicide was predominantly due to a significant increase in the use of handguns, which converted ordinary teenage fights and other violent encounters into homicides.

* Several other interrelated factors also fueled the rise in youth violence, including the rise of illegal drug markets, particularly for crack cocaine, the recruitment of youth into those markets, and an increase in gun carrying among young people.

The author points Out that youth violence diminished as the crack markets shrank, law enforcement increased efforts to control youth access to guns, youth gun carrying declined, and the robust economy provided legitimate jobs for young people.

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The period from 1985 to 2000 saw some sharp swings in the rate of violence in the United States. Much of that swing is attributable to changes in violence committed by young people, primarily against other young people. Beginning in 1985, the rates of homicide and robbery committed by people under age 20 began to rise dramatically, as did the use of handguns to commit those crimes. This increase in violence peaked in the early 1990s, then fell significantly by the end of the 1990s.

Although youth violence has declined in recent years, a rash of school shootings in the late 1990s generated significant public concern and attention from policymakers. (1) This concern is not new--rhetoric about violent youth has captured public attention over the last two decades. Accordingly, federal and state legislators have sought to impose stiffer penalties on youth who are found guilty of violent crimes, by mandating, for instance, that juveniles who commit violent crimes be tried in adult court rather than juvenile court. (2) In particular, in 2000 California voters passed, by a two to one majority, Proposition 21, which increases the range of offenses for which juvenile offenders as young as age 14 will be tried and sentenced as adults.

This punitive response to youth violence follows from public rhetoric that labeled a whole generation of youth as "superpredators." (3) This labeling occurred during the peak of the youth violence epidemic, partly in response to outrageous killings by very young people. The superpredator label suggested that the new generation of young people were out of control, beyond redemption, and had little regard for human life or victims' pain and suffering. Some commentators argued that particularly aggressive steps were needed to keep them under control.

Whether this is an appropriate response to youth violence depends upon the answers to two key questions. First, to what degree was the increase in violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s attributable to youth? Second, to what degree was that growth attributable to a new group of superpredator youth who were inherently more violent than previous generations of young people?

Through examination of homicide and robbery (4) arrest tends for different age groups, (5,6) this article will show that, in fact, youth were primarily responsible for the increase in violence during those years. …