Dramatic, promising youth trends demand attention

Dramatic, promising youth trends demand attention

Modern American youth are acting very differently from what experts predicted – and certainly different from what agenda-driven politics frozen in decades-old dogmas can explain or accommodate. The chart on gun deaths is only one example. Against every theory of youth behavior and political need, however, young people show enormous reductions in gun fatalities over the last two decades in states with stronger gun controls and fewer guns (New York and California) — and also in states with weaker, “open carry” laws and more guns (Texas).

These startling trends offer a way out of today’s political stalemate, in which each new mass shooting is followed by resurrection of the same debate over gun control. After the latest tragedy in Charleston, S.C., President Obama, again, blamed “young people” with poisoned minds and a nation “awash in easily accessible guns.” Gun-rights activists like the National Rifle Association’s Charles Cotton, again, called for more guns in the hands of righteous “armed citizens.”

While traditional politics rages on, mass shootings and daily murders continue to terrorize states with lots of guns (like South Carolina and Arizona) and fewer guns (like Connecticut and Illinois). Today’s low-information, high-emotion debate is stymied by the banishment of any points that do not promote either more gun control or more gun rights.

Contrary to current talking points, gun violence today isn’t just (or even mainly) “young people.” It isn’t just too many, or too few, guns. It isn’t just mass shootings by deranged maniacs and gundowns by street thugs. (It certainly isn’t “video games” – the only factor the president proposed researching.)

And it isn’t hopeless. Gun fatality rates, defying expert predictions, have dropped sharply over the last 20 to 25 years – down 54 percent among young people ages 15-24 (video games and all) and 20 percent among those 25 and older. America’s gun landscape has become unexpectedly complicated.

The most promising trend is the enormous decline in rates of firearms death among young people in the nation’s three most populous states — down 66 percent in Texas, 71 percent in California, and 82 percent in New York (and 46 percent in the rest of the U.S.) over the last two decades, figures from the Centers for Disease Control. No other major state even comes close.

Young African Americans and Latinos age 15-24, once the most endangered populations, are leading the trend toward reduced gun violence (down 75 percent in California and Texas; down 86 percent in New York).

What’s going on? The three states that have spectacularly reduced gun mortality have mammoth urban areas and similar demographics. New York has a higher personal income and lower poverty rate than California or Texas, while Texas has the lowest unemployment rate.

But they’re very different with respect to guns. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks California and New York as the nation’s best and fifth best states, respectively, in gun control – but Texas’s open-carry guns-for-everyone laws get an “F.” California and New York have toughened gun controls while Texas loosened its laws. The percentage of homes with guns is below average in California (21 percent) and New York (18 percent), but much higher in Texas (36 percent).

Are gun laws irrelevant, then? Perhaps not. Gun policy does correlate with gun suicide. Texas’s rate is triple New York’s and nearly double California’s, and California’s drop in gun suicides is particularly impressive. Still, no one is arguing for gun laws to “save our White middle-aged men” (the demographic most likely by far to shoot themselves).

The large decline in gun killings among young people of all races and the recent increase among older Whites reinforces a Violence Policy Center analysis of surveys noting “the aging of the current-gun owning population—primarily white males—and a lack of interest in guns by youth.”

One would think a president expressly baffled and outraged over gun violence would be eager to embrace research into what surprising, encouraging factors have already worked – spectacularly – to reduce gun killings in the three largest states, not in Stockholm, not in Ottawa, but right here in three giant urban states. But he would have to go far outside the box of conventional gun politics, a dimension where few leaders venture, even to save lives. [Mike Males]



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