America’s major institutions, succumbing to cold, Reagan/Clinton-era politics, have profoundly let young people down. A recent avalanche of cloned reports by interest groups has buried the troubling issues that kids really face – poverty, abuse, family chaos, grownups’ rising addiction and crime – under popular 1990s myths demonizing “youth culture” and “teenage risk-taking.” The latest, the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Children and Guns” report, is the most alarming example of deadly institutional conformity defeating bold advocacy.
The CDF report targets a serious tragedy: 37,000 Americans ages 0-19 killed by gunfire from 1990 to 1997. It states two truths that could have revolutionized policy debate: “Children are more likely to be killed by adults than by other children” and “Schools are one of the safest places for children,” far safer than streets and homes.
Then, CDF ducked. It cravenly accepted broad adult gun rights, dodging the uncomfortable reality that “children and guns” is just the junior version of “grownups and guns.” It failed to mention that Americans age 20 and older shot 250,000 people to death from 1990-97, or that in 1999’s last six months, mass shootings by middle-agers in a dozen cities killed or maimed 90 people, including 31 kids.
No indeed; four of CDF’s five emotional anecdotes illustrated kids killing kids. Its poster campaign showed slaty-eyed gun-brandishing youths, absurdly captioned, “Remember when the only thing kids were afraid of at school was a pop quiz?” Its press and poster crusade repeated the politically safe mantra (here we go again) that the crisis is “kids killing kids” and the solution is more laws to “keep guns out of the hands of children.”
To sustain this flimsy agenda, CDF falsified data. It praised laws in 10 states (including California and Illinois) as “best,” and criticized 11 states (including New York) as “worst,” in “protecting children, instead of guns.” CDF claimed the decline in raw numbers of child gun deaths in the “best” states “is two times greater than [in] the states with the fewest protections.” But that’s no achievement – the “best” states had more than twice the population and gun deaths than the “worst” states to begin with. A college freshman who pulled this statistical shenanigan would get an F and stern lecture, yet CDF applies it to a life-and-death issue.
Even a minimal analysis comparing relative rates of children’s gun deaths for each state and year reverses the picture: The states that CDF rated “best” suffer higher proportions of kids killed by guns (14.7% of total gun deaths for the “best” states versus 11.5% in the “worst”) and no larger declines in child gun-death rates from 1996 to 1997 (13% for the “best” states, 13.4% for the “worst”).
More rigorous study would account for the two biggest influences (neither mentioned by CDF) which predict child gun-death rates with 90% accuracy: poverty and adult gun-death rates. When these are controlled by standard techniques, the states championed as “best” by CDF fare even worse. Their child gun-death rates declined more slowly during the 1990s, and now average a disturbing 24% higher than in the states ranked “worst.” The “best” states show lower rates of gun accidents (a very small category of firearms death) but significantly higher rates of gun suicides and murders (the biggest categories) among children and teens.
Whether deceptive or careless, CDF’s recommendations are associated with greater child firearms fatality – and not one authority challenged its abysmal scholarship. Worse, CDF’s relentlessly scary depiction of young people was grossly unfair, promoting false fears of widespread violence that (research shows) prompt the most trigger-happy adults and youths to acquire guns.
Institutions incessantly lament America’s high levels of violence, gun tragedy and other social crises, which they reflexively blame on adolescent behavior. Enough. We don’t need more anti-youth scare campaigns or laws restricting teenagers. We need CDF and other interests to stop pushing easy-politics agendas with distorted information. Institutional dereliction, not youth behavior, is crippling America’s ability to reduce social problems.
Mike Males wrote “Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation” (Common Courage Press, 1998), and “Children and Violence” for the 1999 Scribner’s Encyclopedia of Violence in America. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.