Times-Union readers want to know:
In his speech in Dallas, President Barack Obama said “it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.” Did he have his facts right?
FactCheck.org looked into this claim and found that there is not much recent research on gun availability, access and use among young urban males because federal funding for gun violence research has dried up. The available research, however, does show that teens do report relatively easy access to illegally obtained guns in some urban areas. Still, the percentage of teenagers who own a computer is far higher than those who have a gun. FactCheck.org found a 2012 Pew Research Center report that 73 percent of teens who come from households that make less than $30,000 a year have a computer.
Obama made his remarks during a memorial service for the five law enforcement officers who were killed in Dallas by a 25-year-old black man who told police he was targeting white officers. In context, the president was talking about the ease of access to guns in low-income urban areas and the lack of investment in educational resources, FactCheck.org notes.
So how easy is it to illegally obtain a handgun on the streets of major cities? FactCheck.org’s research found that that’s not easy to determine let alone compare with the access of books and computers.
A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice titled “Peers and Gun Use Among Urban Adolescent Males” reviewed more than 100 studies published since 1990 “on patterns of gun availability, carrying, or use among youth.” The authors said that “researchers have documented the difficulty of accurately measuring youth access to guns.”
Deanna L. Wilkinson, an associate professor in human development and family science at Ohio State University and lead author of that paper, told FactCheck.org that’s because it is illegal for anyone under 18 to own a handgun, so there are no lists of illegal gun owners.
Also, the studies that were available to Wilkinson and her team date from the 1990s, so there isn’t much current research. A major factor for that, she said, is “the federal government ban on funding for research on gun use and gun violence.”
FactCheck.org notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been wary of funding research on guns after lobbyists for the National Rifle Association convinced Congress to cut into that funding after studies in the mid-1990s were viewed by the NRA as advocating for gun control.
For years, appropriations bills for the CDC included language stating, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
In January 2013, Obama ordered the CDC to begin researching “the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it.” But The Washington Post noted in January 2015 that Congress “has continued to block dedicated funding,” and as a result “the CDC is no closer to initiating gun-violence studies.”
The 2009 paper co-authored by Wilkinson included these findings from some of the studies she and her team reviewed.
Using Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun trace data on more than 1,500 guns, a 2001 study by Harvard professors Anthony Braga and David Kennedy “found that juveniles and youth obtained the majority of their guns through retail outlets and thefts despite the fact that it is illegal for minors to purchase handguns via retail outlets.” Straw purchases, in which buyers buy guns on behalf of others they know to be prohibited from possessing a firearm, accounted for more than a third of the illegal purchases.
The Tulane University National Youth Survey conducted in 1996 said that 50 percent of the 731 boys surveyed in 10th and 11th grades “reported that obtaining a gun would be ‘little’ or ‘no’ trouble if they desired one; half rated the task as ‘a lot of trouble’ or ‘impossible.’″ The authors wrote that the survey did “little to dispel the common perception that juveniles can obtain firearms relatively easily.”
How many teenagers actually possess a gun? The Tulane national survey found that 29 percent of those 10th and 11th grade boys reported possessing a gun in the past year. Similarly, a survey of 5,801 California adolescents in 2000-01 found that 33 percent had “ever handled a gun.”
The most recent data found by FactCheck.org come from a report on youth risk behaviors published in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the data – drawn from a national survey of high school students – were limited to those who had carried a gun at least once during the previous 30 days. That number, predictably, is far less than those who have ever handled a gun.
Nevertheless, here is what the CDC found: About 5.3 percent of high school students reported that they had carried a gun at least once during the previous 30 days. That rate decreased between 1993 and 1997 (from 7.9 percent to 5.9 percent), but has remained roughly the same between 1997 and 2015. Looking just at sampling of 15 large urban school districts, the CDC surveys found the prevalence of having carried a gun ranged from 2.2 percent in Los Angeles to 5.9 percent in Oakland. The median across large urban school districts was 4.5 percent.
Most studies note that gun use is prevalent among youths who engage in high-risk behaviors, such as using drugs and joining gangs.
Indeed, a study published in Pediatrics in August 2013 looked at firearm possession rates among nearly 700 youth victims of assault (age 14 to 24) who came to the emergency department at a hospital in Flint, Mich. Among them, 23.1 percent said they had possessed a firearm in the previous six months.
When asked by FactCheck.org about the president’s claim, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said that the president was “simply making the serious point about the lack of opportunity and ready access to guns in way too many places.” Schultz gave FactCheck.org anecdotal evidence, mainly links to news articles where people spoke about how easy it is to obtain a gun illegally in urban areas, such as Chicago. For example, a 2014 story by Al Jazeera America, quoted Chicago resident Diane Latiker as saying that buying a gun was as easy as buying a pack of gum.
It is undoubtedly too easy for young people to get guns in some urban areas based on such studies. But the president overstated his case in his speech.
The 2012 Pew Research Center survey shows computer ownership is prevalent among teens, including those from low-income households. Eight out of 10 teens age 12 to 17 have a desktop or laptop computer, Pew found. Among the 20 percent of teens who do not have their own computer, two-thirds have access to one they can use at home.
“Taken together, this means that 93 percent of teens have a computer or access to one,” Pew found.
As for books, FactCheck.org reported that the White House sent a recent Chicago Tribune article on a free 1 million book giveaway by the city’s public libraries to address what the paper called a “persistent lack of access to books in low-income neighborhoods.” But that same article notes that the Chicago Public Library system has 80 branches, not to mention school libraries, so it should be far easier for a teenage boy in Chicago to access a book than a gun.
No doubt, it’s far too easy to illegally obtain guns. So it’s most likely that Obama was hyperbolizing to make a point about the availability of weapons. But as FactCheck.org found and as we found after reviewing its research, the president went too far in his analogy.
Read the full article on the Jacksonville Times-Union website.