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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Poor Young Men Use Guns to Settle Disputes and Maintain Status


"Many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes.

“'Maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death,' Milwaukee’s police chief, Edward A. Flynn, said. 'And that’s coupled with a very harsh reality, which is the mental calculation of those who live in that strata that it is more dangerous to get caught without their gun than to get caught with their gun.'"

(Monica Davey and Mitch Smith. "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities."
The New York Times. August 31, 2015)


What about this mentality that the gun is not only a defense to criminal assault but also a common means of settling disputes?

Captain Mike Sack, a homicide commander in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, cited killings there that had grown out of arguments over girlfriends, food and even characters on a TV show. “Most remarkable is that individuals get so upset over things that I or others might consider petty but resort to such a level of violence,” he said.

“That is not a situation that can be solved by policing,” said New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael S. Harrison. “It speaks to a culture of violence deeply ingrained into a community -- a segment of the population where people are resolving their problems in a violent way.”

Youth in America today have access to, are using, and are being victimized by firearms more than ever before. Dr. Alfred Blumstein, professor at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management of Carnegie Mellon University and one of the top experts in criminology and operations, headed research that found the following about youth, guns, and violence:


* The increase in violence in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s was due primarily to an increase in violent acts committed by people under age 20. Similarly, dramatic declines in homicide and robbery in recent years are attributable primarily to a decline in youth violence.

* The increase in youth homicide was predominantly due to a significant increase in the use of handguns, which converted ordinary teenage fights and other violent encounters into homicides.

* Several other interrelated factors also fueled the rise in youth violence, including the rise of illegal drug markets, particularly for crack cocaine, the recruitment of youth into those markets, and an increase in gun carrying among young people.

* Youth violence diminished as the crack markets shrank, law enforcement increased efforts to control youth access to guns, youth gun carrying declined, and the robust economy provided legitimate jobs for young people.

(A. Blumstein. "Youth, guns, and violent crime." Future Child. Summer-Fall 2002.)

When we fail to see youth as victims of guns and crime, we deny many means that allow us to correct the problem of youth violence. Many Americans consider all juveniles who commit gun violence thuggish delinquents and gang members. I believe the truth is that most young people with weapons are misguided, unsupervised, angry, rebellious adolescents who see guns as status symbols with a purpose -- "problem-solving tools" for settling arguments.

If we wish to correct this unsettling attitude, we must do much more than point accusing fingers at young assailants in the aftermath of deadly shootings, and, instead, address the violence with strategies that strike at the core of why violent youth possess and use guns. It is evident we must find better means of reaching and helping at-risk youth in their early teens because effective, early prevention measures can keep them from becoming criminal delinquents.


The first thing we can do is be honest and transparent about the hurts of our young people. Poor children in America are under tremendous stress. Yet, in our limited wisdom, we simply tell them they have no excuse to act irresponsibly. What happens when a youth experiences severe mental, bodily, and spiritual stress? Any parent knows that child will act out, often in aggression.


Now, what if this same hurting child is constantly bombarded with the message "you don't matter"?   In his home, his parents are too busy to spend time with him in order to nurture his dreams and aspirations. In fact, he is likely from a one-parent family where money and supervision are often lacking. In a dysfunctional setting, he is often yelled at, scolded, and told that he is only good at doing wrong. Soon, he sees this as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so he begins to hone the skills that contribute to misbehavior and to acquire every available tool for aiding violence.   

And, of course, he channels the frustration he feels at home into a much broader community as he enters school. Here, even though zero tolerance is essential to safeguard innocent students, his school labels him a likely "trouble maker" and soon has "proof" as it runs him through the gamut of disciplinary measures as he finds added social pressures push him to commit so many unruly behaviors that he becomes suspended time and again, and eventually expelled. Claiming "we can't deal with him," his school pushes him out of the education institution that might have been his savior and allows him to take another step closer to entering the prison population.  

And, guns do become commonplace tools for these young people. They are used as machismo symbols for gangs, used for youth crimes, and used for youthful self protection. The Rochester Youth Development Study (RYDS) is a longitudinal study investigating the development of delinquent behavior, drug use, and related behaviors among a group of urban adolescents. It is used by the U.S. Department of Justice. Here are some findings from 2001:

"Overall, boys who owned guns for sport look more like those who didn’t own guns at all than those who owned guns for protection. Compared with boys who did not own guns at all, those who owned guns for sport did have significantly elevated levels of gun carrying, gun crime, and drug selling. (For street crime and gang membership, the differences were not statistically  significant from zero.)

"However, boys who owned guns for protection were significantly and substantially more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior than either those who did not own guns or those who owned guns for sport. For example, 70 percent of protection owners carried their guns, whereas only 11.1 percent of sport owners did so, and only 3.2 percent of those who did not own a gun had carried a gun in the past 6 months. 2 In other words, a protection owner was six times more likely than a sport owner to carry a gun.

"Further, protection owners were eight times more likely than sport owners to commit a gun crime, 3.5 times more likely to commit a street crime, nearly five times more likely to be in a gang, and 4.5 times more likely to sell drugs -- all statistically significant differences.

"One should not necessarily infer from this analysis that owning a gun for protection leads to criminal activity. The opposite may be true: involvement in criminal activity may lead to the need to own a gun for protection. For example, a drug dealer may obtain a gun to ply his trade, rather than ply his trade because he happens to have a gun. However, one thing is certain: boys who own guns for protection have adapted to the dangerous associations and circumstances that surround criminal activity."


Table 1: Percentage of Boys Involved in Delinquency, by Gun Ownership Status

Gun Ownership Status (%)

Type of Delinquency No Gun Owned (n=548)   Gun Owned for Sport (n=27)  Gun Owned for Protection (n=40)

Gun carrying                  3.2                                   11.1                                          70.0
Gun crime                      1.3                                     3.7                                           30.0
Street crime                 14.8                                   18.5                                           67.5
Gang membership        7.2                                    11.1                                           55.0
Drug selling                   3.5                                     7.4                                            32.5




What does the mantra of personal responsibility mean to a child who has a pitifully insufficient support system? Sure, success stories of children beating the odds are celebrated and held up as wonderful models of behavior. But, when we face reality, we find success without major support is very rare and failure is the predominant outcome.

Instead of initiating proactive measures to help all children feel valued -- even delinquent individuals, the much of the public prefers to ignore largely this poor population and expect them to somehow miraculously "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." The result is often "pulling themselves" toward the criminal crowd, accessing guns as tools of their trade, and using them in violent confrontations.  

I constantly hear seemingly everyone profess to their strict beliefs in equality, yet talk costs nothing and requires no commitment and effort. Put a gun in the hand of a poor, young Afro-American, and a large segment of public is quick to blame his race for his penchant towards violence. How many people are willing to count all youth as valuable members of society no matter their economic status, their race, or their creed?

Given the disproportionate damage gun violence is having on communities of color, the NAACP has
advocated for a number of sane, sensible gun laws which will do a lot to eliminate the damage caused by gun violence.

Specifically, the organization is calling for a permanent, nation-wide ban on the sale, transfer, importation, and manufacturing of all high-powered military style semi automatic assault rifles and pistols (assault weapons) and the ammunition clips; a federal law requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases; and that the federal government do more to require states and federal agencies to submit information about disqualified individuals, including mentally ill and other dangerous people for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The NAACP is also opposed to proposals which have the potential to increase gun violence or may unnecessarily, disproportionately criminalize African American youth or other youth of color. Specifically, we have asked for an increase in federal resources for more comprehensive security measures and technology in areas surrounding schools and for counselors in schools to help stop all types of violence, rather than some proposals which have called for police officers or armed security personnel to be placed in schools across the country or to arm teachers or administrators.

There exists a body of literature that argues that police in schools, sometimes referred to as Resource Officers, has the result of criminalizing non-violent student behavior such as class skipping and other acts of defiance and pipelining kids into the juvenile justice system rather than in-school counseling and discipline. Rather than criminalizing children or adding more guns into the school environment, the NAACP believes the nation should focus on providing resources so that more counselors and mental health professionals can be hired and placed in public schools to help assist, monitor and prevent these types of tragedies.

(Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau. "Stopping Gun Violence; Urging Strong Support for Safe, Sane, and Sensible Gun Violence Prevention Laws, Policies, and Programs." National Association for Advancement of Colored People. January 15, 2015.) 

An Effective Program in Chicago


According to the University of Chicago, 7,000 students have missed more than 40 days of school and are enrolled in schools within communities that have homicide rates more than twice the national average. These youth are at a greatly elevated risk for violence involvement.

To combat this, a program titled Becoming a Man (B.A.M.©) is being implemented and funded by local foundations, corporations, and the federal government. The program is being expanding to reach 2,000 students in Chicago in the coming school year.


B.A.M. is a dropout and violence prevention program for at-risk male students in grades 7-12. B.A.M. offers in-school programming, in some cases complemented by after-school sports, to develop social-cognitive skills strongly correlated with reductions in violent and anti-social behavior.

Each session is built around a lesson designed to develop a specific skill through stories, role-playing and group exercises. Participants learn about and practice impulse control, emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations for the future and developing a sense of personal responsibility and integrity.

The after-school sports component reinforces conflict resolution skills and the social and emotional learning objectives of the in-school curriculum. The goal of this program is to help youth learn to compete within the confines of a sport, and to help them learn self-control and accomplishment. The program hopes that through sports, the youths will learn “soft skills” that will help them avoid criminal behavior and succeed in school and the labor market.

A randomized controlled trial by the University of Chicago Crime Lab has demonstrated the positive results of B.A.M. These include the following:
  • Reduced violent crime arrests by 44%
  • Reduced weapons crime and vandalism by 36%
  • Reduced the likelihood of attending school in a juvenile justice setting by 53%
  • Increased future graduation rates by 10-23%
The return on investment was found to be up to 31 times the participant cost from reductions in crime alone in one year, and additional societal benefits of nearly $50,000 to $120,000 per participant from increased lifetime earnings, tax payments and lower public benefit use.

Surely programs like Becoming a Man will strike significant positive changes while aiming at the heart of the problem of youth gun violence. The roots of a young person's feeling the need to pack a gun is based on fear, yet that fear stems from many different reasons for gun ownership ranging from the need to survive to the need to use deadly force in criminal activities.

The death rates are abhorrent. It is time to work on respecting humanity while limiting the violents' ability to kill innocent people and each other. Shooting back in retaliation will never change the mentality of violence present today.

Only when we care enough about saving all lives will America commit sufficient resources to solving youth gun violence. And, one thing that must be striken from the equation of youth violence is the all-too-efficient and effective tool of mayhem -- the loaded gun in the hands of a scared and angry young man who lacks a sensible means to cope with disputes.


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