This week, 17 teachers, students, and visitors died in a Florida high school, in a country where mass shootings have been devastatingly routine. This was followed by another day of despairing, angry furor over guns, schools, and shootings that replayed the same reactions from dozens of past shootings. Once the warring factions settle into their talking points and scapegoats, the debate rages on for decades with little sign of progress. America’s gun debate is like a Greek tragedy, with predetermined lines plodding to inevitable doom. The Right, represented by the National Rifle Association and Republicans, shows no interest in reducing the gun killing epidemic beyond prayers that the “good guy with a gun” (who never seems to be around) will save the day when a “bad guy” opens fire. Liberals’ dishonesty is more nuanced. Background checks and gun control have proven effective at reducing gun suicides and domestic shootings (both very worthwhile goals), but not the gun homicides or mass shootings such remedies are invoked to redress.
On both sides, destructive scapegoating of young people, whether they are suburban school shooters or immigrant gangsters, present blatant falsehoods. FBI tabulations show half of active mass shooters are 35 and older, a large majority are white, and nearly all are men. One middle-aged white shooter murdered more people in Las Vegas in 10 minutes than the best available count of documented murders over the last 15 years that have been attributed to the Latino MS-13 gang, a favorite target of President Donald Trump. We can keep on quarreling over myths and prejudices, or we can start looking for new approaches, as many communities are doing in the face of national default. The hopeful thing is there is plenty new to say—if anyone is willing to say it. Let’s begin with one of the most hopeful and obvious: the massive decline in gun homicides in the nation’s three biggest states, concentrated among young people and urban residents all sides claim to be concerned about—so long as the discussion doesn’t challenge pet positions. Over the last 25 years—though other time periods show similar results—New York, California, and Texas show massive declines in gun homicides, ones that far exceed those of any other state. These three states also show the country’s largest decreases in gun suicide and gun accident death rates.
These major states containing seven in 10 of the country’s largest cities once had gun homicide rates far above the national average; now, their rates are well below those elsewhere in the country. The declines are most pronounced in urban young people. Among ages 15-24, gun homicide rates are down nearly 80 percent in cities of 500,000 or more in the three largest states, led by declines—approaching 90 percent in New York City’s central boroughs, more than 80 percent in Los Angeles, and 74 percent in Dallas. Isn’t this what all sides have claimed to want: big reductions in gun killings, especially among young people? Why, then, aren’t researchers flocking to our three biggest states and their major cities to analyze what happened there—or, at least, talking about their stunningly hopeful trends? Anyone familiar with the gun debate will see the political problem right away. California and New York have the nation’s strictest and fifth-strictest gun control laws, respectively, in the country, earning “A-” ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and low rates of gun ownership. So, gun-rights conservatives don’t like to talk about successes in those states—nor about the fact that those declines in violence correspond with an increasingly racially diverse young urban population, driven by Latino, Asian, and African immigration.
On the other side, Texas has among the weakest gun laws in the country (“open carry” is its most recent gun-rights salvo, earning an “F” grade) and some of the highest rates of gun ownership. Gun-control lobbies are loath to acknowledge any success in Texas. So, we have to look beyond current gun politics and commentary to community-based initiatives. Most major cities have gun violence prevention programs, but if these deserve some credit, we would need to study why they worked so much better in New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Diego, and El Paso than in Chicago, Miami, or Philadelphia. If young Texans can show large declines in killings without tough gun controls, we need to understand what forces are at work in its cities. Rather than jockeying for political advantage, we need to acknowledge young people of all races, who as a generation have sharply lower levels of gun ownership and numbers of gun killings despite continued high rates of poverty. White, Black, Latino, and Asian youth (Native American numbers are too small to determine accurate trends) each show much faster declines in gun homicide rates in the three largest states than do their national counterparts. The pattern suggests a generational trend in the three major states’ cities—and to a lesser extent, nationwide—that urgently needs scrutiny. When youth homicide arrests in the city of Los Angeles fall from 680 in 1990-92 to 104 in 2000-02 to 17 in 2014-16, and the number of teenage girls murdered falls from dozens in the early 1990s to zero in the last 12 months ending February 15, 2018, it’s time to shake up everyone’s frozen thinking. Gun violence indeed remains an unspeakably tragic, American epidemic, but there is no excuse for recycling old futilities when dramatic and hopeful new information is at hand.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.