Teens and guns

January 02, 1991

A spate of holiday shootings in which teen-agers were involved both as victims and as perpetrators underscores the current epidemic of handgun violence and the deadly trade in weapons that fuels it. In one incident, a young Crofton engineer and father of two was shot to death in the parking lot behind his office, allegedly by two youths ages 15 and 16. In another, a 19-year-old was fatally wounded Monday during a running gun battle between the occupants of three cars.

The causes of this alarming breakdown of public order are complex and as varied as the individuals who contribute to it. But one thing is certain: The carnage is made possible and is sustained primarily by the easy availability of handguns to ever younger potential offenders. The proliferation of such weapons may be the biggest single factor in the rise in killings that drove urban homicide rates to near record levels last year.

Where do teen-agers get guns? Law enforcement experts say the most common source is the home, where a gun purchased by a parent or older relative can easily wind up in the hands of an irresponsible youth. Often the weapon is taken from the house without the knowledge of its owner. Teen-agers also purchase weapons illegally on the street, typically guns that either have been stolen during burglaries or that have been traded privately so many times that they are virtually untraceable. In some areas, teen-agers can even "rent" a gun from criminal brokers for a nominal fee.

In theory, an adult who gives a teen-ager a gun can be held legally responsible for damages arising from the commission of any crime that results. In practice, however, it is rarely possible to prosecute such cases. Nationally, some 75,000 guns are reported stolen every year. Thousands more circulate through private sales that are largely undocumented. Even when an adult supplier can be identified, there is no guarantee that the assets seized will be sufficient to cover a damage award.

The only sure way to keep handguns out of the hands of teens is to ban their sale and possession altogether. That is a politically explosive proposition, but the plague of murder and mayhem makes it clear that drastic measures are necessary as a matter of self-preservation.

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