At least two-thirds of the perpetrators and victims of gun violence are males under the age of 30. What else do they have in common? They live in neighborhoods with high crime rates and low family incomes, they knew each other before the violence broke out, they usually aren’t employed. But there’s another commonality these young people share which isn’t often mentioned in discussions about gun violence and crime.
It turns out that the part of the brain that controls processing of information about impulse, desire, goals, self-interest, rules and risk develops latest and probably isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s or later. And while adolescents and young men understand the concepts of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ as well as older adults, they tend to let peer pressures rather than expected outcomes guide their behavior when choosing between risks and rewards.
Take this neurological-behavioral profile of males between ages 15 to 30 and stick a gun in their hands. The brain research clearly demonstrates that kids and young adults walking around with guns understand the risks involved. Whether it’s the NSSF’s new Project ChildSafe, the NRA’s Eddie Eagle or the grassroots gun safety programs that have expanded since Sandy Hook, nobody’s telling the kids something they don’t already know.
So what can we do to mitigate what President Obama calls this ‘epidemic’ of gun violence when the population most at risk consciously chooses to ignore the risk? I suggest that we look at what communities have done to protect themselves from other kinds of epidemics that threatened public health in the past. And the most effective method has been to quarantine, or isolate, the area or population where the threat is most extreme. It worked in 14th-century Italy, according to Boccaccio in The Decameron. Why wouldn’t it work now?
Last month the city of Springfield, Mass., recorded its 12th gun homicide. If the killing rate continues, the city might hit 15 shooting fatalities this year, a number it actually surpassed in 2010. This gives the city a homicide rate of 10.2 per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national rate. Virtually all the violence takes place in two specific neighborhoods bounded by Interstate 291 and State Route 83, and all the victims are between 15 and 30 years old. This area of less than four square miles contains roughly 30,000 residents which means the homicide rate here is 45 per 100,000, more than 10 times the national rate. And the numbers haven’t really changed in the last four or five years. This isn’t an epidemic?
Don’t get me wrong. The word ‘quarantine’ evokes images of the Warsaw Ghetto and I’m not proposing anything like that. But think of police in this neighborhood behaving like public health workers; going door to door, asking people what they know about the existence of guns. There are no constitutional issues here; someone doesn’t want to answer, you go on to the next door. Wouldn’t the city send people out to make contact with residents if, for example, the water supply suddenly couldn’t be used?
There are grassroots efforts all over the country to make neighborhoods safer from guns. But they usually consist of meetings in churches and other public places where people come together to voice and share their concerns. It’s not the folks who come out to the meeting that you need to reach; it’s the ones who remain at home. I’m suggesting that we go block by block, again and again, to make sure that people know about the epidemic called gun violence. It’s spread by a virus called guns, and as long as young men between 15 and 30 believe they are immune to the risk of this virus, the epidemic will continue to spread.