GUNS AND CHILDREN OUGHT NOT MIX
By Jerome J. Shestack
President, American Bar Association
The recent tragic schoolyard shootings in Arkansas reinvigorated calls in some camps for
"tougher juvenile justice laws," and there is movement afoot to pass highly controversial juvenile
justice legislation known as S.10 -- legislation that found when it was first offered little support
from any group that knows or cares about juvenile crime, and which deserves no more support
now than then. The bill proposes such measures as trying more children in the federal system,
trying more children as adults, and removing longstanding protections for children in custody,
such as separating them from adult offenders. But tougher punishments would not have
prevented these shootings.
We should focus our attention on a critical problem these killings point out so vividly --
the easy access children in this country have to guns. Because of lax laws and little enforcement,
children often have nearly unfettered access to unsecured firearms in their own homes and in the
homes of other family members, friends and neighbors. Congress has avoided this important
issue in a bill that is purportedly attempting to address juvenile violence.
Most nations restrict the availability of handguns much more carefully than does the
United States, and this difference has a telling impact on juvenile violence in our midst.
Worldwide statistics show that the epidemic of violence that has hit younger children in recent
years is confined almost exclusively to the United States. According to a 1993 United Nations
report, nine out of ten killings of young people in the industrialized world happen in the United
States. The overall firearm-related death rate among American children under 15 years old was
nearly 12 times higher than among children in the other 25 industrialized countries combined.
More American teenagers now die from disease-related causes.
There is no realistic doubt that the pervasive, easy (even if illegal) access to firearms in
this country is the primary reason for these appalling statistics.
Instead of rearguing legislation that would lock up more children with adults -- which
has been shown to produce more criminals instead of fewer -- Congress should work on long
overdue legislative steps to prevent both organized illegal trafficking of firearms and easy access
to firearms often obtained in the home. Gun owners should be required to provide and use
secure storage or safety devices; safety standards should be enacted to treat guns as consumer
products; and specific, proven safety features should be incorporated in the manufacture and sale
of all firearms, such as gun locks and load indicators, to prevent accidents and unauthorized
access to guns in the home by teenagers and children. Legislation aimed at curbing juvenile
violence cannot be successful without addressing how easy it is for children to get guns in this
Nothing will return the lives lost in that Arkansas schoolyard. But steps can and should
be taken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.