Wednesday, May 25, 2022
When It Comes to Guns, Age Matters
I suspect I'm not alone in thinking about guns this morning in the wake of the Texas shooting at a grade school in Uvalde Texas. This post reflects matters I've been thinking about for a long time. Indeed, thirty years ago I considered making gun violence a core academic research topic, until I realized how potent is the lobby supporting gun sales, and therefore gun ownership.
First, this morning I listened to a young man, David Hogg, speaking to an NPR interviewer about his own frustrations in opposing gun violence. He urged legislators at state and national levels to do at least "one thing" to move forward on gun safety legislation. My first reaction was "one thing?" How is that going to help?
Second, I heard a bit more about the background of the 18 year old shooter in Texas, as well as the background of the similarly-aged shooter in Buffalo New York. More memories. In one of my previous lives, I volunteered for a neighborhood tutoring program in New Mexico. My first two students, in high school, had been sent to the program by judges trying to help youths in crime-related incidents. One young man attended once -- and then disappeared.
I managed to have a good session with the other student, a junior in high school, who at my request wrote a short essay about what he saw as his future. The 500 word piece was quite well written, and gave us something we could definitely use to gently work to improve his reading and writing skills. The focus, however, proved to be a window into the bleak outlook of a young man who was involved in a so-called gang. To put it simply, he saw no future for himself after high school. He said with utter confidence that his high school "had" to graduate him regardless of whether he did any more work, as long as he merely attended class. I didn't want to believe that, but he had plenty of evidence to support his hypothesis. He didn't have any post graduation plans. He had equal confidence that he probably wasn't going to make it to age 21. The following week during our tutoring session, he was creative in his resistance to my role as a tutor. He turned in his next essay, but it was written entirely in what was some sort of "tagger's script," the stylized script he used when spray-painting his messages on public building. Tagging was his only crime at that moment.
I eventually decided to volunteer for younger students, and in fact I had a two-year working student-tutor relationship with a grade school boy who was in the program at his mother's insistence. Actually, I got to know the whole family, including his parents and a sister who also sometimes attended our reading sessions (and she helped turn reading into a competitive adventure). To mark the success of his "graduation" from the program, we went to a Phoenix Suns basketball game, because the opposing team that day had a player much admired by my student. At his comparatively "youthful" age, he had written about his plans for the future, including somehow, against all genetic odds, planning to "grow" tall enough to be a professional basketball player, like his idol, Nate Archibald. We talked about coaching as an alternative -- just in case.
I remember the difference in these individuals as I listen to the troubled histories of the two "boys" who bought guns as part of their 18th birthday celebrations. I don't know what happened to most of the other the students involved in the tutoring program. The second student dropped out of the program for reasons I never learned, but I later saw his name in the newspaper when he was accused of being the driver in a car-jacking where his "friend" shot the woman who resisted having her car taken. Sadly, that student's essay was prophetic, as any true dreams for a future may have ended with that crime.
So, if we are going to do at least "one thing," could we -- should we -- focus on raising the threshold age for gun ownership? Should we give young people in their late teens more time to grow older (and "taller" or more mature) and thus to reach a point where the future seems brighter? I'm not suggesting they cannot participate in shooting sports, hunting, and the military, where we hope their use and skill building would be supervised by knowledgeable people. I am suggesting making it unlawful for them to "own" or at least to purchase guns until they are older. Research suggests that substantially more crimes of gun violence against others are committed by individuals between the ages of 17 and 21. There is research to support restricting gun ownership (and therefore gun sales) to individuals over 21 as one step forward in terms of safety.
For example, in June 1999, a "collaborative report" under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice noted in part:
In 1996, 26,040 people in the United States were killed with guns. In 1997, offenders age 18, 19, and 20 ranked first, second, and third in the number of gun homicides committed. Of all gun homicides where an offender was identified, 24 percent were committed by this age group, which is consistent with the historical pattern of gun homicides over the past 10 years.
Other statistics suggest that gun-related suicide death rates are highest for females age 45 to 64 and for males age 75 and older, statistics that point to another form of age-specific gun tragedies. Age matters.
That first boy who "disappeared" after the first tutoring session? I later learned he had been killed in a neighborhood shooting. Would younger adults support delayed lawful-ownership as one form of protection against gun violence? Certainly, more is needed on so many other levels including mental health supports. But could "one thing" -- at least -- include blocking gun sales to people who are still in the process of learning to plan for the future, for their futures?