Making Sense of Kids Who Kill

October 1, 1998

Jonesboro, Arkansas. Pearl, Mississippi. West Paducah, Kentucky.

These sites of horrific youth violence have Americans searching for answers about kids who kill. Fortunately, as shocking as these and other highly publicized cases are, they run contrary to juvenile homicide trends and represent an aberration, rather than the norm.

Juvenile homicides have fallen significantly and are still rare compared to adult killings. Juvenile homicide arrests dropped 30 percent (to 2,172) between 1994 and 1996. Fewer than three percent of homicides involve someone under 18 killing someone else under 18.

Likewise, there has been no increase in the number of pre-teen killers over the past decades. In 1965, 25 kids under 13 were arrested for homicides. In 1996, it was 16. Even in Chicago, there were 10 killings by kids under age 11 from 1966 to 1981; from 1982 to present, there were 6.

Furthermore, schools are as safe from juvenile homicides as they have been in recent years. Ninety-nine percent of homicides among school-aged children occur outside of schools. In the 1992-3 school year, there were 55 school killings; in 1997-8, there were 40.

Does this mean that America doesn’t have juvenile homicide problem? Of course not. An annual homicide arrest total of 2,172 is reprehensible.

Still, what sets America’s children apart from past generations, or from European kids, is neither television violence nor an allegedly lenient legal system. What distinguishes present-day juvenile homicide rates is the dual impact of unprecedented access to guns and historically high rates of child poverty.

Between 1984 and 1994, arrests for juvenile gun homicides quadrupled, while non-gun homicides stayed the same. America’s children are killed by guns at 12 times the rate of children in other industrialized nations. Only 35 percent of America’s teenagers have difficulty obtaining a gun.

If today’s kids are simply more murderous than past generations, homicides without guns would have increased. But they didn’t. It’s more likely that adolescents today are as together or confused as always, but with exponentially greater firepower.

Likewise, the U.S. has a staggering child poverty rate compared to other Western countries and to past U.S. generations. We have the highest child poverty rate among industrialized nations. In 1995, there were 14.8 million kids in poverty (that’s one in four), up from eight million in 1970.

If this country were to try to produce a high juvenile murder rate, it could hardly do better than to double the number of poor kids, and create a ready pipeline to handguns.

The connection between poverty, guns and homicides is even stronger when viewed through the lens of the past three years. The 30 percent drop in juvenile homicides is largely attributable to improving economic conditions and diminished access to handguns. While juvenile homicides were declining, the adolescent unemployment rate was dropping 10 percent. Coupled with a higher minimum wage and declines in adult unemployment, the financial picture for America’s teenagers improved significantly.

Furthermore, in 1995 it finally became illegal for America’s juveniles to possess handguns. Local jurisdictions have also passed numerous gun control ordinances since then. Boston combined a law restricting gun purchases to one a month with efforts to get guns out kids’ hands. The result was two-and-a-half years without a known killing by a youth.

In the wake of recent tragedies, it is vital to create policies guided by sober analysis, not media-driven hysteria. Instead, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently revived his discredited juvenile justice bill which jails runaways with adults, earmarks no funds for prevention, and eschews all gun control measures. After Jonesboro, Hatch dubiously claimed, “If we don’t pass a juvenile crime bill, the country’s going to see more and more” such shootings.

Let’s hope that Congress can show more interest in locking up guns than locking up kids. Unfortunately, this is an election year. With so many politicians beholden to the gun lobby, that hope may be a long shot.

Schiraldi, Vincent. "Making Sense of Kids Who Kill." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 52.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.