Youth Justice


When the Children’s Defense Fund released its new report, Protect Children, Not Guns 2012 in March, we dedicated it to the memory of Trayvon Martin and the thousands of other children and teenagers killed by guns in America, including the 5,740 killed in 2008 and 2009 according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fight to uncover the truth of what happened the night Trayvon Martin died hasn’t ended but basic facts that have never been in dispute are starkly clear. Of the two people involved, one was a teenager carrying an iced tea and a bag of candy. The other was a much larger adult carrying a gun and patrolling a gated community despite having previously been under a restraining order for domestic violence and charged with resisting arrest with violence and battery on a police officer. Without George Zimmerman, a zealous neighborhood watcher with a gun, Trayvon Martin would be alive today. The same is true for thousands of other children—whether they were victims of deliberate shootings, victims of accidental shootings, or victims of suicide. Guns lethalize anger and despair and twist everyday tensions into life-threatening and life-taking tragedies.

As a nation we need to protect children from guns, support common-sense gun safety measures, and pass stronger federal, state, and local laws that would save many lives. We could start by closing the gun show loophole. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires federally licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on every gun sale, but a loophole in the law allows private dealers to sell guns without a license and avoid the required background checks. This loophole accounts for a large share of all gun sales. It’s estimated that over 40 percent of all guns in our country are sold by unlicensed private sellers to buyers who did not have to pass a background check. Congress must require criminal background checks on anyone who attempts to purchase a gun.

Congress should reinstitute the ban on assault weapons. The federal Assault Weapons Ban, signed into law in 1994, prohibited the manufacture and sale of 19 types of semi-automatic military style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines that contained more than 10 rounds of ammunition, but it expired in 2004. Legislation pending in Congress would reinstitute the ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines that were used in the mass shootings in Tucson, Arizona and at Virginia Tech. Congress must restore the ban on both high-capacity clips and assault weapons. These deadly assault weapons that cause multiple deaths at a time have nothing to do with hunting animals. As James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, said right after the Tucson murders: “Notwithstanding the worn-out slogan that ‘guns don’t kill, people do,’ guns do make it easier for people to commit murder. And semi-automatic guns, like the Tucson assailant’s out-of-the-box spanking-new Glock, make it easier to commit mass murder.”

Our nation should strengthen gun restrictions on people convicted of a violent misdemeanor or a violent act as a juvenile. Under current law, a conviction for a violent misdemeanor doesn’t prohibit a person from purchasing or possessing a gun, and a related loophole exists for people adjudicated for violent offenses as juveniles. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a person convicted of a violent misdemeanor was eight times more likely to be charged with a subsequent gun and/or violent crime and one in three people convicted of a violent misdemeanor who tried to buy a handgun was arrested for a new crime within three years of acquiring the gun. Congress must close these loopholes and prohibit gun possession by individuals who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors or have been found delinquent for violent acts.

Another common-sense solution for protecting children and adults would be requiring consumer safety standards and childproof safety features for all guns. Every gun in this country should be childproof. One-third of all households with children have at least one gun in the home and it’s estimated that nearly two million children live in homes with an unlocked and loaded gun. It makes no sense that the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates toy guns and teddy bears but not a product that in 2008 and 2009 killed 56,529 adults and 5,740 children and teens—a total of 62,269 human beings. No external enemy has ever come close to killing this number of civilians of all ages in the U.S. Federal law is silent on gun-related consumer safety standards and child access prevention. In fact, the production and manufacture of guns is exempt from oversight by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As a result, many handguns do not contain easily-installed life-saving safety features. Only 27 states have even attempted to keep children from accessing guns by passing child access prevention laws. Gun deaths are the third leading cause of fatal injuries in the U.S. for people age one and older—following only motor vehicle and poisoning deaths. Congress must subject guns to the same consumer product safety regulations that cover virtually every other consumer product. Congress also must require childproof safety features on all guns.

Every one of us should be urging our leaders to make these essential and sensible changes at the national level while simultaneously pushing state and local governments to protect children and all in America from deadly guns. Demand the repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” laws now in effect in 21 states and made notorious in Trayvon’s killing that encourage a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach to confrontations. Every one of us should be demanding repeal of laws allowing concealed weapons on school grounds, in child care centers, or other public venues where children and teens gather. Urge your state legislators and local officials to support laws to prevent child access to guns such as requirements for locking devices and imposing criminal liability when guns are left unsecured or stored negligently. Oppose efforts to weaken state and local gun laws or legislation that limits the ability of schools, physicians, and others to do their part to keep children safe from guns.

It’s shameful that when child and teen gun deaths are compared in 23 high-income countries, 87 percent of all children under 15 killed by guns were in the United States. Our gun homicide rate for teens and young adults 15-24 years old was 42.7 times higher than the rate for the other countries combined. There are an estimated 283 million guns in civilian hands in America—almost one gun per person. Why is the United States alone in allowing this unbridled epidemic of guns and public health hazard all over America to continue? As parents and grandparents and concerned adults and voters, it is up to us to tell our leaders no more.