On September 20, 21-year-old Bryon Champ was shot at by rival gang members, who grazed his leg with a bullet. That night, Champ and three allies allegedly went to the other gang’s neighborhood and opened fire on a crowd with an assault rifle, wounding 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy. They have been charged with multiple counts of attempted murder.
Our nation's libertarian approach to guns has exacted a terrible toll on young people. The U.S. firearms homicide rate is 20 times that of other industrialized countries. But for those ages 15 to 24, it’s an off-the-charts 43 times higher. And until this year, a 17-year congressional ban on federally funded firearms research wrecked efforts to systematically understand the links between state gun laws and gun casualties. (The Obama administration lifted the ban in January.)
Violence and easy access to guns have especially created a lethal witches’ brew in poor neighborhoods. Crime experts agree on the need for more violence-prevention efforts that reach youth and young adults at an earlier stage before they get into serious trouble.
Violence-prevention programs work to convince youth not to carry and instead to develop skills for de-escalating potentially violent situations, says Daniel Flannery, director of Case Western Reserve University’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education. Gun possession makes that harder: “There’s a lot of research suggesting that when kids or adults are in possession of a firearm, there comes with it certain sense of power and control and security—sort of an uptick in your willingness to be aggressive,” says Flannery.
Laws like Stand Your Ground further subvert their work. These laws—which at least 22 states have—allow people to defend themselves with deadly force outside their homes if they believe doing so will prevent them from being killed or seriously harmed, even if they could retreat. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence labels them “shoot first” laws because they “encourage people to take the law into their own hands and act as armed vigilantes, often with deadly consequences.” Florida’s law hit the news after George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin last February and initially claimed immunity from prosecution under that state’s Stand Your Ground law.
“[Stand Your Ground] is exactly counter to everything we tell young people about the fact that there are better ways to handle conflict than a gun,” says Billie Weiss, national co-chair of Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth Through Violence Prevention, which helps cities develop violence-prevention strategies. “It just totally undoes everything we try to teach.” A study in the summer 2013 Journal of Human Resources concludes that Stand Your Ground laws, rather than deter crime, actually have led to an 8 percent increase in the number of reported murders and non-negligent manslaughters in states with those laws.
“What’s most significant about Stand Your Ground is that it reflects a broader attitude that has become more a social norm in our culture,” says Susan Morrel-Samuels, director of the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center. “That protecting yourself with force is a desirable thing and that you should be ready to protect yourself with force at all times. That affects everyone, not just the kids that we work with, but it makes it a more normative kind of behavior.”
Convincing at-risk youth to disarm is no easy feat since they’re frequent targets of violence. A study in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics showed high rates of gun possession among those ages 14 to 24 who go to emergency rooms after being injured in an assault. The top reason youth in the study gave for carrying guns was self-protection—exactly what the NRA and other gun boosters preach.
Alan Gottlieb of the pro-gun-rights Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA) agrees with Weiss and others on one thing—young people who have already committed a crime shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns. But those who haven’t and are of legal age should be allowed to, he says. “There’s a problem in that age group with crime in general, but to make a blanket statement that they can’t be trusted with firearms would be wrong.” Asked whether more guns are helpful in high-crime neighborhoods, he contends that it’s “in the poor and minority areas of the country where police protection isn’t as good and where the violence is raging, and to say that people shouldn’t be encouraged to have the means to protect themselves [in those neighborhoods] is surely wrong.”
It’s a classic argument about whether individual rights trump community interests. That’s because there’s a good chance strapping on a gun itself changes people’s behavior for the worse. The Pediatrics study found that youth who carried guns held more aggressive attitudes than those who didn’t and were more likely to have been involved in violence in the previous six months. Carrying a weapon gives them the illusion of control, says Paul Carrillo, who works with youth and young adults in a violence and injury-prevention program in Los Angeles called Hospitals Against Violence Empowering Neighborhoods.
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, recounts in his book Fist Stick Knife Gun how he initially felt empowered after he bought a handgun as a 19-year-old college student. Until then, when he’d travel the blocks around his home in the Bronx, he’d go out of his way to avoid the gang that hung out on the street. But with the gun in his pocket, he’d walk straight through them, hand on the trigger, staring them down. In the end, he threw his gun away: “I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would sooner or later pull the trigger.”
Gottlieb doesn’t buy the idea that guns lead to more aggression, with the possible exception of certain groups like gang members. He argues that more firearms instruction and safety training in schools would help, as happened historically in some school districts. But he says no data were kept on the effects of those programs on youth homicides.
The Trayvon Martin case also may have eroded efforts to convince at-risk kids to disarm. In July, Carrillo met with a group of teens to discuss how Martin’s death could have been avoided—he wanted them to think about alternatives that might have prevented the tragedy. But for some who spoke up, there was only one solution—“they felt like if they were Trayvon, they’d have hoped that they’d have had a gun so they could defend themselves like Zimmerman felt he did,” he says.
It doesn’t help that under Stand Your Ground, gang members are being acquitted of gun crimes that likely would have landed them in prison previously. In Florida, after a February 2008 street shootout between rival gangs left one person dead, lawyers for two of the gang members used a Stand Your Ground defense to have their most serious charges dismissed because they showed that the other side fired first. “If you’re a defense counsel, you’d be crazy not to use it in any case where it could apply,” Zachary Weaver, a West Palm Beach lawyer told the paper. “With the more publicity the law gets, the more individuals will get off.”
That makes it harder to convince youth that there’s a price to pay for violence. “While these laws can be successfully used as a defense, what they’re telling people is that you don’t have to be accountable for harm you may cause,” says Alicia Virani, who directs youth-oriented restorative justice and conflict resolution programs through the California Conference for Equality and Justice. She doesn’t favor punitive justice, but says “When you harm someone, there’s something you need to do for that person or their family to make it right or as right as possible.”
The Martin case’s ramifications haven’t all been so hopeless. The group Dream Defenders, for example, is determined to reverse the troubling trend spurred by failing gun policies. After the Zimmerman verdict in July, protesters from the Florida youth group held a month-long sit-in at the state capitol to demand reconsideration of Stand Your Ground. In early September, they were joined by young people from the Philadelphia-based Youth United for Change for another three-day sit-in. Three weeks ago Dream Defenders, working with the NAACP and Florida Legal Services, issued a report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee arguing that Stand Your Ground laws violate U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a signatory.
Now the group is organizing in Florida around “Trayvon’s Law,” a package of NAACP-developed bills aimed at state legislatures that would repeal Stand Your Ground, set training requirements for community watch groups, and other measures. The group says its goal is to put electoral muscle behind its platform by registering 60,000 youth and minority voters in Florida by the 2014 election and turn out at least half of them at the polls. It’s also organized chapters in six colleges across the state and is starting counterpart chapters in high schools statewide.
Those are signs that young adults may play an ever-growing role in the movement for smarter firearms laws. As the group most likely to be gun-violence victims, their involvement is no feel-good exercise in civic engagement—they’re fighting for their lives.