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Kansas City shooting raises questions about how kids are getting a hold of guns

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Two minors face charges in connection with a shooting last week that killed one person and injured 22 others, including children, at what was supposed to be a celebration - the Super Bowl victory rally for the Kansas City Chiefs. A court statement said they're being held in juvenile detention on gun-related and resisting arrest charges. The shooting yet again raises questions about how some of the youngest people in the U.S. are getting their hands on guns. To talk about this, we're joined by Jeffrey Butts. He's a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Good morning, and thanks for being on the program.

JEFFREY BUTTS: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: So how do people under 18 years old get their hands on guns?

BUTTS: Well, it should be no mystery to any of us. There are guns all over America. I think you've probably heard there are more guns than people in the United States. About 40% of people report in surveys that they live in a home where people own guns. So why are we shocked that teenagers can get their hands on them?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, this isn't the first time we've seen young people accused in high-profile shootings. We don't know the exact age of these shooters, but the most extreme example I can think of was from a little more than a year ago, when a 6-year-old was accused of shooting his first-grade teacher. Is gun violence for minors a growing problem, or is this a problem that's been around?

BUTTS: Well, it's a problem that's been around. And I think it's a mistake, actually - it's more horrifying when we hear about a young person...

FADEL: Yeah.

BUTTS: ...Using a gun, but they are just reflecting back to us American culture and American politics. I don't think we should be surprised.

FADEL: So in your view, what is the solution here? How do you prevent people, and young people in particular, from committing violence with guns?

BUTTS: Well, all you have to do is visit some other countries or look them up, and you find the solutions. We just live in a country where our political leaders refuse to do anything about this. I lay all these deaths at the feet of people in elected office who believe it's more important to satisfy the gun lobby and raise money off this issue than it is to save lives.

FADEL: What are some of the solutions?

BUTTS: You can register handguns. You can make them technically impossible to fire unless you were the registered owner. That's - that technology has been around for quite some time, and we refused to do it. And I think at some point we need to embark on a system of - I don't know how to say this, but basically, we have to reduce the amount of guns in circulation. We cannot just wait for them to age out, so once they get so old and can't fire anymore. That cannot be the only way we reduce the population of guns currently in circulation.

FADEL: So in your view, it's not about the way you charge people after violence is committed, but about the access in the beginning in the first place.

BUTTS: Yes. We have experimented in this country for several decades with extreme forms of punishment, incarceration, and the violent crime numbers vacillate. They go up and down. When you look at it in terms of research and trying to establish the causal relationship between gun possession, punishment for guns and violence, you don't find a really strong correlation. I think what we're looking at is the culture and politics of America. Not - this is not a failure of the criminal justice system. If criminal justice solved all these problems, we would know it by now because we lead the world in incarcerating people.

FADEL: So it wouldn't be a deterrent to charge minors as an adult, for example.

BUTTS: Sure it's a deterrent, but the word deterrent means that it may have an effect on some people. That's not a solution to the problem. Again, we experimented with that as well. We started putting young people in the adult criminal justice system a lot during the 1980s and '90s. And the states that led the way on that did not see steeper increases in crime. We did not find a strong correlation between treating juveniles as adults and public safety.

FADEL: Jeffrey Butts is director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thank you for your time.

BUTTS: You're welcome.

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