100,000 guns a day

March 26, 1993

Something is seriously wrong when firearms become the second leading cause of death among teen-agers, right behind auto accidents. Yet that's the import of a new study by the National Center for Health Statistics, which found that the rate at which young Americans are killed by guns has risen dramatically in recent years. In 1990, the last year for which complete figures are available, firearms were involved in one out of four deaths among people aged 15 to 24.

What makes such statistics particularly frightening is that virtually all the increase in firearms deaths among teens is a result of a sharp increase in homicides. Fatal firearms-related accidents actually declined by two-thirds between the 1979-1987 period and the period 1987-1991. But homicide, which earlier accounted for less than half the deaths, accounted for two-thirds of teen gun deaths in the later period.

The problem is especially acute among minority youths living in poor inner-city neighborhoods. In those communities, firearms are the leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds. Yet gun violence clearly cuts across racial and class lines. The rate of firearms-related homicides actually is increasing fastest among white male teens.

A recent study by the Justice Department suggested as many as 100,000 youths take guns to school each day. The same report found that a quarter of male high school students had carried a weapon to school at least once. As classrooms come to resemble armed camps, disputes once settled with fists now sometimes end in gunfire.

One cause surely is the proliferation of gun-related crime that coincided with the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s. Crack created a new underground economy in just those urban areas hardest hit by the loss of urban manufacturing jobs. It enmeshed a generation of young people in an orbit of crime and imprisonment that continues to erode the fabric of community in poor neighborhoods and which now has spread beyond the largest cities to smaller towns and suburbs.

This is powerful evidence of a growing culture of violence among young people unlike anything in the nation's history. Contemporary pop culture glorifies violent gunplay. But TV and movie carnage wouldn't resonate so powerfully if it didn't to some degree reflect the greater sense of insecurity and danger young people everywhere now experience.

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