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Teens describe lust for guns

They’re, like, tight,” Professor Bernard Harcourt tells a small audience at Chicago’s Law School one December afternoon, demonstrating how youths talk about guns. Harcourt picked up the expression—and a slew of other slang—interviewing teenage boys detained in an Arizona correctional facility. Inserting their voices into the national conversation about gun crime, he argues, is critical to understanding the widespread and still growing problem—and to evaluating current policies to curtail it. “I wanted to be a bad motherf*cker,” he quotes another teen, continuing the final installment of a three-part discussion series: Guns, Crime, and Punishment in America. Harcourt, who helped organize the series, also edited a book by the same title (New York University Press, 2003).

“There is a language of guns that these youths are speaking,” he explains to the group. “They come into this language the way we come into speaking English.” He uses their words to paint a stark picture. Take the case of CMS-66, the code name for a 17-year-old at Catalina Mountain School—a facility just north of Tucson—randomly selected to participate in Harcourt’s 30-person study, which focused on the symbolic dimensions of gun carrying among boys. CMS-66 received his first gun at 15 as a gift from an older friend. Two years later he conceded: “I shouldn’t be possessing guns; maybe when I’m 21.”

Through 75-minute interviews with 14- to 17-year-olds—held for crimes such as burglary, grand auto theft, and assault—about their gun experiences, Harcourt discovered a shared, metaphoric language. The majority expressed a “lust” for the weapons, he says, explaining that when shown pictures “they would giggle or moan at the sight of the guns. [They] wanted to play with them.” At the lectern Harcourt takes his analysis one step further. The boys, he says, pushing an unruly lock of brown hair behind his ear, generally think of the weapons in one of three ways: as a commodity, as recreation, or as protection.

Within the groups patterns emerge, Harcourt says, pointing to a diagram tracking the detainees’ behavior. Those teens dealing guns to make money tend to dislike them and carry them less, he says. Although they associate with gang members, they typically don’t belong to gangs themselves. The boys who use guns recreationally—for hunting and shooting at objects such as cans—maintain fewer gang connections, speak more often about respecting the weapons, and tote them around only occasionally. The protection set, lastly, are most likely to carry guns and to be gang members.

But what to do with those distinctions? Harcourt suggests that the data, which he hopes to publish in book form, have policy implications. Most important, he says, is the protection group—directly linked to drugs and gangs—who might respond better to strategies including youth conflict-resolution and safety monitoring than tough law enforcement. Harcourt, whose Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing (Harvard University Press, 2001) challenges the prevailing belief that letting minor misdemeanors go unpunished encourages more serious crime, identifies a need for increased insight into America’s gun culture—an insight that takes into account young people’s points of view. Such an approach, he believes, could generate new ways to deal with the problem.

“This study is incredibly important,” says law professor Tracey Meares, JD’91, taking the floor. Meares, director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, notes a lack of similar interview-based studies, which are time-consuming and costly. As intended, Harcourt’s research inspires her to mull over legal practices and public policies and to consider solutions—a supply-side strategy, for instance, that diverts guns from retail. “It’s the presence of the guns themselves that’s fueling all this stuff,” she says. Authorities, meanwhile, “can’t figure out why people are carrying,” but if the weapons were unavailable, “it may not really matter.”

Harcourt agrees that strategies such as supply-side—less radical an approach than, say, Project Exile, which moves gun offenses from the state to the federal system, where the stakes are higher for defendants—are worth examining. “Maybe we should be more cautious of the policies we come up with,” he says, then welcomes discussion. One student suggests a youth marketing campaign, portraying guns as uncool. A woman asks how young females fit into the equation. Data on gun-carrying girls, Harcourt acknowledges, are missing from current research. The detainees at Catalina Mountain School, he adds, often conflate the weapons with machismo, as evidenced by their language.

“It’s not at all clear how to understand this language,” Harcourt says—or the teens themselves. CMS-66, for one, seems pulled in two directions. Between stints in detention, he enrolled in a community college predental program. But the appeal of guns proved greater than his desire to lead a straight life—and the laws meant to deter him from doing otherwise. “The fact is, the rules are in place and yet he continues to offend.” Talking with CMS-66, now in his 20s, and his peers, Harcourt concludes, might be the best way to learn why.—M.L.


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