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

Public Perspectives: Introduction
Richard E. Behrman

Editor's Introduction

The final two articles in this journal issue, called "Public Perspectives," focus on aspects of the public debate surrounding youth access to guns. Rarely does a children's issue generate as much controversy as this one does. Few Americans are neutral when it comes to young people and gun violence-and their opinions are strongly held. Indeed, the United States often seems split into two intractable camps on the issue.

Although both of these camps condemn youth gun violence—whether in the form of homicide, suicide, or unintentional shootings—they differ dramatically in their approaches to the problem. One camp feels that most children and youth cannot be trusted around guns without strict supervision and that restrictions on youth access to guns are justified as a way to prevent youth gun violence, even if these restrictions make guns more difficult for adults to obtain and use. The other camp believes that after a certain age, youth can be trained to use guns responsibly; that the broader culture, not the availability of guns, is the major cause of youth gun violence; and that restrictions on gun purchases threaten what they view as constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. The two camps are polarized and hostile. As a result, many public policies with the potential to reduce youth gun violence remain stalled in Congress, in state legislatures, and at the local level.

The articles in this section of the journal shed some light on the deeply held beliefs of Americans on both sides of the debate about youth gun violence. The first article, by Smith, reviews trends in public opinion regarding gun control, particularly policies that restrict youth access to guns.

The author finds that public support for most forms of gun control is strong, deep, and widespread. This support has not wavered over the past 30 years. Also unchanged during this time period, however, is the presence of a significant minority of Americans who oppose most gun-control measures. The author argues that opinions on gun control, both for and against, are so deeply entrenched that they are unlikely to change in the near future.

The second article, by Forman, examines the opinions of advocacy groups working on both sides of the guns issue. The author interviewed 29 gun control and pro-gun advocates to determine how they view youth gun violence and how they believe it can be prevented. The article vividly illustrates how polarized the debate around youth gun violence has become. Even on issues where some advocates on both sides agree, such as safe storage of guns and increased investment in youth at risk of gun violence, common ground has been nearly impossible to find.

These articles illustrate the contentious atmosphere that pervades any discussion of youth gun violence in the United States. No one is in favor of youth gun violence, but neither can Americans seem to find consensus on what to do about it. Hopefully, by casting light on dimensions of the public debate about this issue, these articles can at least provoke discussion of areas where consensus might be achieved and progress made in preventing the more than 20,000 youth gun deaths and injuries that occur in the United States each year.