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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman

Strategies for Addressing the Problem (3/4)

Strengthening Law Enforcement against Youth Gun Violence

Stronger enforcement of existing laws against youth gun carrying is another strategy to reduce gun violence. Beginning in the early 1990s, some police departments adopted an aggressive approach toward identifying and punishing youthful gun offenders. Supporters of this approach argue that punitive law enforcement against the criminal use of guns is an effective way to deter gun violence.75 Indeed, at least one study found that fear of arrest can deter youth from carrying guns.76 Other observers maintain, however, that community-based policing strategies, which emphasize close collaboration between police and citizens to prevent crime before it occurs, may reduce youth gun violence more effectively over the long term.51

The article by Fagan presents case studies from eight cities that have experimented with different approaches toward policing gun crime, particularly youth gun crime. For example, New York City adopted an aggressive, punitive approach, and gun homicide rates declined. However, the drop came at the price of severe strains in relations with minority communities, which viewed the police tactics as racist. This made it more difficult for police to engage the community in youth gun violence prevention efforts.

In contrast, San Diego's policing strategy focused on stopping youth gun crime before it started by combining aggressive law enforcement with equally aggressive outreach strategies to engage the community in controlling crime and preventing youth gun violence. The San Diego police met frequently with community advisory boards to identify crime problems and discuss potential solutions. More than 1,000 citizen volunteers were trained to prevent crime and assist crime victims in their neighborhoods, and police officers were assigned to schools to assess at-risk youth and connect them with social services. Youth gun violence rates declined in San Diego, and the city was spared the racial tension that plagued law enforcement efforts in New York.

It remains unclear how much police really can do to prevent or reduce youth gun violence, however. Analyses of gun violence rates in the nation's 20 largest cities suggest few differences from one place to another in the 1990s, regardless of whether police in those cities pursued punitive law enforcement strategies, community-based policing, a combination of approaches, or no specific policing innovation.51 Nonetheless, the San Diego example illustrates how police can partner with the community to communicate social norms against youth gun carrying and gun violence.


Recommendation

Police should complement their existing efforts to deter youth gun carrying by developing and evaluating law enforcement approaches that include extensive police–community collaboration.




Changing the Design of Guns

Rather than focus on changing the behavior of parents and young people through education, community efforts, or law enforcement, some injury prevention experts suggest that it might be easier to reduce youth gun violence by changing the design of guns themselves. 77 Ample precedent for this approach can be found in the injury prevention field. As discussed in the article by Teret and Culross in this journal issue, changing the design of medication packages proved to be a more effective poisoning prevention strategy than convincing children to stay away from bottles of pills. Similarly, legislators, regulators, and litigators forced major design changes to cars that made them safer in crashes, thereby reducing motor vehicle fatalities in a way that driver training could not.

Requiring product safety features on guns, such as child safety grips (which make it difficult for young children to fire guns), magazine disconnect devices (which prevent guns from being fired when their magazines are detached, even if a round of ammunition remains in the gun), and loaded chamber indicators (which indicate whether guns are loaded), could reduce unintentional shootings among children and youth. This view is supported by a 1991 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, which concluded that 31% of the unintentional gun deaths in 10 cities could have been avoided through use of child safety devices and loaded chamber indicators.78

In addition, emerging technologies would enable manufacturers to personalize guns, which could prevent unauthorized users such as teenagers or thieves from operating the weapons. Personalized guns, referred to as "smart" guns, hold promise for preventing intentional as well as unintentional shootings.79

Nearly 86% of respondents to a national poll on gun safety supported requiring all new handguns to be childproof, and more than 63% supported requiring new handguns to be personalized.80 At the same time, the product safety approach to gun violence prevention is not without controversy. Some gun control advocates fear that if the public perceives guns to be childproof, more Americans will buy guns, increasing the risk of both intentional and unintentional shootings.81 The Beretta Corporation, a leading gun manufacturer, has expressed concern that childproof guns could lead parents into lax gun storage practices, putting children at risk.82 Some gun rights advocates claim that gun safety devices could easily be dismantled if gun owners did not want them,8 and that personalization technologies are undeveloped and unproven.83

One major reason these technologies remain undeveloped and unproven, however, is that no one is requiring them. Guns are not regulated for safety by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, ATF, or any other federal agency. The federal government requires that imported guns meet a few basic safety standards (which do not include child safety features), but Congress has exempted domestically manufactured guns from these standards.

Virtually all other consumer products—such as motor vehicles and children's toys—are regulated for product safety. Particularly in view of their lethality, guns should not be an exception. If Congress mandated federal regulatory authority over guns, it could lead to requirements for standard product safety features on guns, such as magazine disconnect devices or loaded chamber indicators. Federal regulatory agencies also could fund research to develop other product safety features, including personalization, and assess whether these innovations are effective in reducing intentional and unintentional youth gun deaths.

State legislatures and consumer safety agencies also can assert the authority to regulate guns. In Massachusetts, the attorney general promulgated regulations requiring that commercially sold handguns incorporate product safety features that prevent young children from firing them.84 Maryland enacted legislation requiring any newly manufactured handgun sold in the state beginning in 2003 to be equipped with an integrated mechanical locking device. Maryland's law also requires a state agency to review the status of personalized gun technology and report to the legislature annually.84


Recommendation

Congress should extend the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to regulate guns as consumer products, establish regulations requiring product safety features on guns, and evaluate the effectiveness of product safety interventions. State governments should extend similar authority to their consumer product safety agencies.