Chapter 2: What Are the Causes of Juvenile Crime and Violence?
Chapter 2 Preface
Among the many theories debated regarding the causes of juvenile crime and violence—including genetic predisposition, environmental influence, violent images in the media, poverty, and single-parent families—one of the most controversial is whether the availability of guns in American society contributes to juvenile crime. While many argue that the presence of large numbers of guns increases the risk of youth violence and fatalities, others contend that guns protect law-abiding citizens from armed criminals.
According to Eric Lotke, a research associate at the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, and Vincent Schiraldi, the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in 1987 “the number of juvenile homicides with a firearm started to spiral upwards while the number of non-firearm homicides stayed steady or decreased.” Lotke, Schiraldi, and others contend that guns have led to higher rates of violence because they have replaced less fatal weapons. While juveniles used to fight with fists and knives, they now resolve disputes with lethal firearms. And because guns can be used from a distance, they make killing less confrontational and therefore easier.
Defenders of gun ownership, however, contend that firearms protect innocent citizens from violent criminals. According to Paul H. Blackman, researcher for the National Rifle Association, “Guns [are] most commonly used for protection against burglary,...
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Why the Young Kill
The temptation, of course, is to seize on one cause, one single explanation for Littleton, and West Paducah, and Jonesboro and all the other towns that have acquired iconic status the way “Dallas” or “Munich” did for earlier generations. Surely the cause is having access to guns. Or being a victim of abuse at the hands of parents or peers. Or being immersed in a culture that glorifies violence and revenge. But there isn’t one cause. And while that makes stemming the tide of youth violence a lot harder, it also makes it less of an unfathomable mystery. Science has a new understanding of the roots of violence that promises to explain why not every child with access to guns becomes an Eric Harris or a Dylan Klebold, and why not every child who feels ostracized, or who embraces the Goth esthetic, goes on a murderous rampage. The bottom line: you need a particular environment imposed on a particular biology to turn a child into a killer.
It should be said right off that attempts to trace violence to biology have long been tainted by racism, eugenics and plain old poor science. The turbulence of the 1960s led some physicians to advocate psychosurgery to “treat those people with low violence thresholds,” as one 1967 letter to a medical journal put it. In other words, lobotomize the civilrights and antiwar protesters. And if crimes are disproportionately committed by some ethnic groups, then finding genes or other traits common to that group risks...
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Environmental Factors Contribute to Juvenile Crime and Violence
Over the years, criminologists have put forth a wide variety of motives for what causes crime. People who deal with young people cite the following root conditions: poverty, family factors, the environment, media influence, and declining social morality. These will be taken up in order:
Although it is considered passe to say poverty causes crime, the fact is that nearly 22 percent of children under the age of eighteen live in poverty. Poverty, in absolute terms, is more common for children than for any other group in society. Ageism, they say, is the last frontier in the quest for economic equality. Adolescents from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families regularly commit more violence than youth from higher SES levels. Social isolation and economic stress are two main products of poverty, which has long been associated with a number of D-words like disorganization, dilapidation, deterioration, and despair. Pervasive poverty undermines the relevance of school and traditional routes of upward mobility. The way police patrol poverty areas like an occupying army only reinforces the idea that society is the enemy whom they should hate. Poverty breeds conditions that are conducive to crime.
One of the most reliable indicators of juvenile crime is the proportion of fatherless children. The primary role of fathers in our society is to provide economic stability, act as role models, and...
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Violence in the Media Contributes to Juvenile Crime
Today, the media are providing our children with many, perhaps most, of their role models. Kids like to emulate their role models. Tragically, media-inspired copycat crimes are now a fact of life. This is the part of juvenile crime reporting that the TV networks would rather not talk about.
Research in the 1970s demonstrated the existence of “cluster suicides” in which the local TV reporting of teen suicides directly caused numerous copycat suicides by impressionable teenagers. Somewhere in every population there are potentially suicidal kids who will say to themselves, “Well, I’ll show all those people who have been mean to me. Then I’ll get my picture on TV, too.”
Because of this research, television stations today generally do not cover suicides. But when the pictures of teenage killers appear on TV, the effect is the same. Somewhere there is a potentially violent boy who says to himself, “Well, I’ll shoot all those people who have been mean to me. Then I’ll get my picture on TV, too.”
Thus we get copycat cluster murders that work their way across America like a virus spread by the six o’clock news. No matter what someone has done, if you put his picture on TV, you have made him a celebrity, and someone somewhere will want to emulate him.
The Influence of Role Models
The lineage of the Jonesboro shootings [where two boys, eleven and thirteen, killed four girls and a teacher in...
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Violence in the Media Does Not Contribute to Juvenile Crime
Is there really a link between entertainment and violent behavior?
The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Mental Health all say yes. They base their claims on social science research that has been sharply criticized and disputed within the social science profession, especially outside the United States. In fact, no direct, causal link between exposure to mock violence in the media and subsequent violent behavior has ever been demonstrated, and the few claims of modest correlation have been contradicted by other findings, sometimes in the same studies.
History alone should call such a link into question. Private violence has been declining in the West since the mediabarren late Middle Ages, when homicide rates are estimated to have been 10 times what they are in Western nations today. Historians attribute the decline to improving social controls over violence—police forces and common access to courts of law—and to a shift away from brutal physical punishment in child-rearing (a practice that still appears as a common factor in the background of violent criminals today).
The American Medical Association has based its endorsement of the media violence theory in major part on the studies of Brandon Centerwall, a psychiatrist in Seattle. Dr. Centerwall compared the murder rates for whites in...
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Guns Contribute to Juvenile Crime
OK, let’s get this straight. The kids [Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris]—the killers—called themselves the Trenchcoat Mafia. They were into heavy-metal music, violent video games, black lipstick and nail polish; they sewed swastikas on their black dusters and talked about Hitler, about how to buy Uzis and build pipe bombs. But they were just loners, outcasts. Geeks. A little weird. Kids other kids made fun of. They didn’t seem to be a problem.
What’s wrong with this picture?
We go looking for answers, we always do, knowing full well there may be none. A couple of disturbed kids—it could happen anywhere, any time, it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it’s easier to think that. Otherwise you have to dissect the whole culture, to blame, as American conservatives do, the permissive society, or, taking the liberal line, to blame guns. You have to consider negligent parents and oblivious educators and whether you really need that pistol in the drawer, and you have to wonder what’s going on—how benumbed we’ve all become—when kids who give the Nazi salute after rolling strikes in the school bowling league are just different, not a problem.
Maybe, in a way, the conservatives and liberals are both right. Sure, there have always been outcast kids, but today’s outcasts can descend into [the video game] Doom or the [World Wrestling Federation] (WWF) or [the music of] Marilyn Manson, they can commune with like-minded losers on...
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Guns Do Not Contribute to Juvenile Crime
In Springfield, Oregon this past week  fifteen yearold Kip Kinkel was arraigned in court, charged with murdering two classmates and wounding twenty others in a cafeteria shooting rampage. It appears likely that the young man had murdered his parents as well.
This is the latest in a string of a half dozen similar nightmares that have taken place across the nation during the 1997-98 school year, including Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi. All involved young killers with guns and without self-restraint. Nearly everyone agrees that we have moved beyond the realm of mere coincidence, that there is some connection between these horrible events. But that’s where the agreement ends.
As parents grieved last month in Jonesboro, television commentator Katie Couric suggested that the shootings were rooted in a gun and hunting culture. She was not alone in this, and it’s easy to see why. Each of this year’s tragedies took place in regions where legal gun ownership is commonplace, and where youngsters are often taught about firearms.
But if the blame lay solely with “gun culture,” one should expect this sort of violence to have happened all along in American history. Generations of American youths have grown up around guns without feeling at all compelled to commit multiple murder. To the contrary, most young people who train today in the shooting sports learn excellence...
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The Root Cause of Juvenile Crime and Violence Is Poverty
In a boom economy, the most recent figures show that a staggering 40 percent of America’s children and youth remain in low-income families. Thirteen million are poor, and 6 million of those suffer destitution in households with less than half of poverty-level income. U.S. child poverty rates are two to 10 times higher than in Western Europe, Canada or Australia. Poverty is so strongly connected to nearly everything adults think is wrong with “kids today”—murder, violent crime, unintended pregnancy, AIDS, smoking, dropping out of school—that it dwarfs every other factor.
Yet child poverty is rarely discussed today, buried under the popular, all-consuming “values” crusade and by the usefulness of children in pushing other agendas. New Democrats and Republicans agree that today’s big menaces to kids are violent video games, TV, caffeine, R-rated movies, unfiltered Internet porn, raves, gangstas, Marilyn Manson, baggy pants, or any unmonitored free time. White kids with guns grace “kids without a conscience” cover stories in People and Rolling Stone that dismiss poverty as irrelevant.
Poverty and Gun Fatality Rates
But in the real world, the likelihood of a youth being killed by gunfire, getting arrested, going to prison or dying before age 25 has a lot more to do with how poor he or she is. Obsession with fictional screen images crowds out realities of grinding poverty, crumbling schools,...
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The Root Cause of Juvenile Crime and Violence Is Fatherlessness
The continuing rise in illegitimacy rates is terrible news not just for the children themselves, but for every potential crime victim in America. For all the talk about the complexities of the “root causes” of crime, there is one root cause which overwhelms all the rest: fatherlessness.
As Pat Moynihan wrote in 1965: “From the wild Irish slums of the nineteenth-century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring a stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. . . . [In such a society] crime, violence, unrest, unrestrained [rebellion against] whole social structure—these are not only to be expected, they are virtually inevitable.”
A Detroit study found that about 70 percent of juvenile homicide perpetrators did not live with both parents. Another study found that of girls committed to the California Youth Authority (for serious delinquents), 93 percent came from non-intact homes. Nationally, seventy percent of youths incarcerated in state reform institutions come from singleparent or no-parent homes. A survey of juvenile delinquents in state custody in Wisconsin found that fewer than 1/6 came from intact families; over...
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Chapter 2 Periodical Bibliography
Sandra Arbetter “Violence—A Growing Threat,” Current Health, February 1995. Available from Weekly Reader Corporation, 200 First Stamford Place, PO Box 120023, Stamford, CT 06912.
Gregory J. Boyle “More Punishment: Simple but Senseless,” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1997. Available from Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.
Patrick Fagan “The Real Root Cause of Violent Crime,” Vital Speeches of the Day, December 15, 1995. Available from PO Box 1247, Mount Pleasant, SC 29465.
Richard Lacayo “Toward the Root of Evil,” Time, April 6, 1998.
Paul Lachine “The Long Road After Littleton,” Christianity Today, June 14, 1999.
Toni Locy “Like Mother, Like Daughter,” U.S. News & World Report, October 4, 1999.
Iain Murray “Juvenile Murders: Guns the Least of It,” Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2000.
David W. Neuendorf “What Is Behind the School Killings?” Aurora Journal-Press, 1998. Available from Register Publications, 126 West High St., Lawrenceberg, IN 47025.
Katha Pollitt “Natural Born Killers,” Nation, August 2, 1999.
Faraz Rana “Violently Objecting to Media Critics,” University Wire, October 6, 2000. Available from Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia, PO Box 400703, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4703.
Bruce Shapiro “The Guns of...
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