Kids Killing Kids
Red flags are one potential solution to America’s school-shooting problem.
Americans ages eighteen to twenty account for only 4 percent of the population but 17 percent of murders. The problem is not just the guns. It is the young (almost always) men who wield them. Any possible starter solution rests with the child shooters, not the firearms.
There's a pattern inside those sordid statistics, with some 70 percent of school shootings since 1999 having been carried out by people under eighteen. The median age of school shooters is sixteen. Whether it’s because they are left out, bullied, teased, or angry at some slight or offense, it is kids killing kids.
Since these killings tend to be "local," typically the shooter and the dead share a racial and/or social-economic background, leaving "white supremacy" as a cause in the trash alongside heavy metal and Satanism. There have been at least 554 school-shooting victims, with at least 311,000 children exposed to gun violence at school in the U.S. since the Columbine High School massacre, all spread across 376 schools. The frequency of shootings has increased, with a surge of forty-six incidents in 2022, the highest in any year since 1999. The safest year was 2020, when most schools were closed and parents needed only to worry—pointlessly, it turned out—about Covid taking their kids.
Since it's not the guns per se but young men who are to blame, more traditional gun control is unlikely to make much of a difference. Already under the federal Gun Control Act (GCA), shotguns and rifles, and ammunition for shotguns or rifles may be sold only to individuals eighteen years of age or older. All other firearms can be sold only to those twenty-one years of age or older. Licensed sellers are bound by the minimum age requirements established by the GCA regardless of state or local law. However, if state law or local ordinances establish a higher minimum age, the gun seller must observe the higher age requirement.
Background checks vary in quality from state to state but generally seek to prohibit sales for reasons such as a history of domestic abuse or violent felony convictions, crimes unlikely to snare the shooters just out of middle school. No background check is going to catch someone seething with rage. Checks also are made at the time of purchase, and gun ownership can be forever. There is the private transfer loophole that bypasses most background checks, though no evidence budding mass killers seek out this method of gun acquisition.
There is also the Columbine divide that somehow factors in to kids killing kids. Pre-Columbine America saw only about 300 school shootings in 150 years. Post-Columbine shootings number 331 in only 24 years. Something big is very wrong in America; our kids are not alright. Add to the shootings the growing number of teen suicides—many involving guns. Suicide is the third leading cause of teen death, with homicide in the number two position. Add those together and guns are Cause of Death Number One, and you have more than a crisis: You have a nightmare.
In the absence of federal statistics, the Washington Post has kept records of all school-related shootings. It found school shootings disproportionately affect black children; black students make up 16.6 percent of the school population but experience school shootings at twice that rate. At schools with majority black student bodies, shooters typically target a specific person, limiting the number of people shot—and the subsequent media exposure. Mass shootings (four or more people) tend to be white kids' domain.
But as we approach the "what should we do" portion of the discussion about guns, here is perhaps the most important statistic: In cases where the source of the gun could be determined, 86 percent of the weapons were found in the homes of friends, relatives, or parents. Where else could an elementary school student get a gun after all? As mentioned, federal and many state laws limit long gun sales to eighteen-year-olds, with many setting the bar at twenty-one. There is no evidence that children get their guns at gun shows. They get them at home.
There are two kinds of parents in these cases, those who fail to treat their guns responsibly and those who fail their children. One avenue of exploration would be much tougher penalties for adults who fail to secure their guns and ammunition, in line with penalties for selling drugs to minors or child neglect. States could consider trigger-lock or other safety-oriented giveaways, and make purchasing such tools a requirement for buying a gun. Of course some people will fail to use the safety tools, either on purpose or by accident, but the process of protecting ourselves needs a long-term solution in spite of short-term failures.
A second avenue to explore is expanding red flag laws (Extreme Risk Protection Orders), for parents who suspect their children are headed down the wrong road to call on which would place one more hurdle in the way of acquiring weapons. Red flag laws can enlist parents, gun salespeople, teachers, and peers in spotting students who should not have ready access to firearms. A red flag law allows people to petition a state court for the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to himself or others. A judge makes the final determination.
Such laws exist in nineteen states and D.C. at present (fourteen states of those states adopted red flag gun laws after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida) with considerable variation. One of the most significant variations is who may petition a court to take someone's guns away. Every state currently allows law enforcement to do so, but California is the only one that includes family members. None of the laws in place allow teachers, clergy, doctors, coworkers, or school peers—people who may well know a young man's intent best—to petition.
A federal law that standardizes such criteria is badly needed. Basic red flag laws are judicially sound, and have, for example, been used in Florida nearly 6,000 times since 2018 and survived a state supreme court challenge. And Florida has had no mass school shootings since the law went into effect.
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Unlike laws banning whole classes of weapons (i.e., "assault rifles"), new laws focused on the shooter may be one possible path forward, at least concerning kids shooting kids at school. Advantages include:
- Red flag laws allow for early intervention before an individual with mental health or behavioral issues can cause harm to himself or others.
- By temporarily removing firearms from individuals who are considered a danger to themselves or others, red flag laws can help increase safety for both the individual and the general public.
- Red flag laws can be effective in preventing suicides, as individuals who are at high risk of self-harm can have their firearms temporarily removed.
- Red flag laws typically require a court hearing before firearms can be temporarily removed, ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to defend themselves and that their due process rights are protected.
And so the day after a typical mass shooting, schools again remain closed or on some heightened state of alert. Flags fly at half staff. People leave flowers, notes, and toys at the door. Red flag laws would seek to take guns away from kids before all that, and have been legally tested. As a potential national-level solution they do not restrict gun ownership among most adults, and barely open the Pandora's box of tampering with the Second Amendment. They are as apolitical as anything to do with guns in America can be, and are supported by 72 percent of Americans. Protecting our kids from our kids has to start somewhere.