President Obama’s comprehensive proposal for preventing gun violence in America is to be commended. The focus for policy makers shouldn’t be to try and sort out which of his ideas are politically feasible but rather which ones will work to accomplish the goal of preventing gun violence of all types, while preserving the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Linking the ideal outcome to a focus on the pragmatic steps we can take now to make progress toward the ultimate goal is how the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) approaches this type of challenge and, in this case, it holds great promise for actually fixing one of the most intractable problems facing the United States.
As with many other social issues, Millennials have a much more liberal perspective on solutions to gun violence than their older siblings--members of Generation X, who grew up when Ronald Reagan was president. By a 55% to 36% margin, Millennials favor taking steps to control gun ownership over protecting the right to own guns. Only seniors, normally more conservative on these types of issues, approach this level of support for government action to make our cities and neighborhoods safer. By contrast, Generation X, born 1965 to 1981, is the one generation which , even after Newtown, believes it is more important to protect gun ownership rights than to control the use of firearms (by a 48% to 42% margin).
A recent report from the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network (RICN), underlines both Millennials’ support for taking on the issue and their focus on pragmatic steps to do so. Starting with its title, “Young People’s Concrete Policy Recommendations to Address Gun Violence Prevention in America,” the report analyzes each side of the debate solely in terms of what solutions are likely to work. The recommendations correctly focus on steps to decrease access to semiautomatic weapons and any ammunition clip with more than ten rounds. It strongly endorses the creation of comprehensive databases that would have to be accessed for any gun transaction to take place, with a special emphasis on ensuring the names of those with serious mental illness are included in the database. With special insight, the report, by a group of progressive Millennials, properly dismisses the distracting idea of making the current debate about culture or media coverage, as opposed to taking action.
There is plenty of evidence in the nation’s successful efforts to reduce crime to suggest that this Millennial approach to the problem will work. As Simon Rosenberg, has pointed out, violent crime, with the sole exception of gun violence, particularly in country’s largest cities, has dropped dramatically since 1993. The principle reason for that decline was the introduction of the CompStats process by Bill Bratton as police chief of New York City, which led to a 77% decline in crime in that city alone since then. Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative, recognized the efficacy of this program and spread knowledge of Bratton’s approach to police chiefs across the country. This is one of the key reasons why there has been a continued decline since then in the nation’s crime rates. Despite economic hard times, major increases in our juvenile population as Millennials became teen agers, and a series of other societal developments that traditional sociologists and criminologists had predicted would cause an increase in crime, the progress continues.
CompStats uses current, accurate information to analyze where crimes are being committed and by whom. The goal is to get bad guys off the streets and to flood high crime areas with police resources. The gun violence analogy to this simple and effective approach would be to keep people who lack the intention or ability to use guns responsibly from buying firearms and to heavily penalize those who use them irresponsibly. A comprehensive assault weapon and ammunition clip ban of the type the RICN advocates has proven to be effective in other countries in limiting access to guns, and a fully developed and federally mandated background check for all gun transactions should be instituted to keep the wrong people from being able to buy guns.
This still leaves the problem of existing weaponry, but buy-back programs both in the US, and elsewhere, have been effective in further reducing gun violence. The attempts of NRA supporters to short circuit such efforts by trying to buy the guns being offered instead of letting the police destroy them testifies to the ultimate effectiveness of this approach to reducing the nation’s stockpile of unnecessary weapons. And the success of the state of Virginia, a gun lover’s and seller’s paradise, in reducing gun violence by making it clear that criminals who use guns will be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law has proven its value as the right public policy approach to go after those who should never be allowed to use a gun.
CompStats and the RICN report provide one further valuable lesson to keep in mind as the debate over President Obama’s proposals heats up. When Bratton first introduced the concept to his leadership team, its members told him he could never accomplish his initial goal of reducing crime in NYC by 40% within three years. Their argument was that since the police had no control over the causes of crime—poverty, ethnic and racial tensions, or educational levels--it was not possible or even fair to hold the police accountable for its reduction. But Bratton made it clear that it was not necessary to address the underlying causes of bad behavior to reduce it substantially by simply focusing on the individuals committing crimes and eliminating places where they might be tempted to do so.
Similarly, it can and probably will be argued ad infinitum whether or not violent entertainment creates a fascination with guns that leads to gun violence. And an equally unproductive debate can be held over the media’s role in glorifying those who commit such acts. But no matter who is right, there is no reason to have that debate delay the country from doing something to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them improperly. With technologies much less sophisticated than what is available today to sift and sort big databases, Bratton’s CompStats process was still able to pinpoint where to direct efforts to take bad guys off the street and dramatically change the safety of our cities.
The nation’s consciousness has been stirred by the slaughter of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut. But as Newark Mayor Cory Booker correctly points out, gun violence takes the lives of more than thirty people, about as many who died at Virginia Tech, every single day. Now that Newtown and the President’s proposals have focused the nation’s attention on the problem of how to end such senseless slaughter, attention must be paid to the Millennial Generation’s ideas on how to meet this challenge. More than any other generation, it is their future that is at risk if we fail to do so.