Drop in homicide reflects fewer guns in hands of youth, says expert

October 31, 2000

The marked drop in homicide rates in Texas and across the country is tied dramatically to fewer guns in the hands of young people, according to a paper being presented at a convention of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) in San Antonio's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Monday, Nov. 6. The paper, Factors in the US Homicide Drop, is by Alfred Blumstein, the J. Erik Jonsson University Professor of Urban Systems and Operations Research at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. Prof. Blumstein is past president of INFORMS and current director of the National Consortium on Violence Research.

Prof Blumstein is co-editor of the book, "The Crime Drop in America," which is to be published this fall by Cambridge University Press. Prof. Blumstein's paper attributes the decline in homicide since the early 1990's in large part to changes in drug markets, police response to gun carrying by young males, the economic expansion, and efforts to decrease general access to guns.

The decline in homicide in the general population since the early 1990's is most pronounced in the two age groups whose homicide rates rose sharply from the mid-1980's to the early 1990's: juveniles (age 12 - 17) and young adults (18-24).

"It is clear that the post-1993 decline in homicides was associated with a major reduction in the use of handguns in homicides, especially by young people," he explains.

Contagion of Gun Violence

The late 80s and early 90s saw an epidemic of handgun violence, much of it tied to the crack cocaine surge in large cities and drug dealers hiring young people to sell drugs.

Prof. Blumstein refers to the public health contagion model in explaining the diffusion of guns in this group. Young drug sellers had to carry guns for self-protection, he says, and other young people, networked with the teenagers selling drugs, began to obtain and carry guns also, and that diffusion process transformed the usually benign teenage fights into lethal encounters.

"The growth in homicides by young people, which accounted for all the growth in homicides in the post-1985 period, was accounted for entirely by the growth in homicides committed with handguns, " says Prof. Blumstein. Handgun homicide among young adults increased over 100% from 1985 to 1994 and the use of handguns by those under 18 increased more than 300%. During the same period, murders involving rifles and other weapons remained largely unchanged.

Turnaround in 90s

The decline in new users of crack cocaine and the subsequent change in crack markets and the increase of jobs produced by the robust economy during the 1990s contributed to the subsequent reduction of homicides in this age group.

So did government responses to the proliferation of guns. Police in major cities introduced more aggressive tactics that led to the seizure of guns and reduction of gun-related deaths. These included aggressive stop-and-frisk methods in New York City, offers of bounties to informants about illegal guns in Charleston, South Carolina, and a Boston gang program that is credited with eliminating youth gun homicide in that city for well over a year.

These police programs attempted not only to confiscate weapons but also to deter the brandishing of weapons, which contributed to the diffusion of guns among young people. General efforts to limit the opportunity for high-risk individuals to purchase handguns, exemplified by the Brady Bill, also contributed to the reduction in gun-related violence, says Prof. Blumstein. A decline in weapons offenses and arrests for both young adults and juveniles began in 1994, the first year the Brady Bill was in effect. The Brady Bill required a waiting period for the purchase of handguns from licensed dealers, thereby discouraging buying by felons. That effect was still limited, however, because of the many unregulated secondary markets through which a determined illegal purchaser could get a gun.

The ATF also increased its effort to trace guns and made this information available to local jurisdictions. Of all illegal gun trafficking investigations conducted by the ATF, approximately 40% involved youths.

"Efforts to intervene in illegal firearm trafficking, especially when combined with aggressive confiscation efforts, can have an important effect on juvenile and youth violence," says Prof. Blumstein.
The theme of the INFORMS convention is "Integrating Theory and Application 2000." The convention will include sessions on topics applied to numerous fields, including commuter transit, e-commerce, health care, information technology, energy, transportation, marketing, telecommunications, and sports. More than 1,500 papers are scheduled to be delivered. The General Chair of the convention is Dr. Way Kuo, Texas A&M University. Additional information about the conference is at http://www.informs.org/Conf/SanAntonio2000/ and http://www.informs.org/Press.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) is an international scientific society with 10,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications. The INFORMS website is at http://www.informs.org.

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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