A debate is mounting over the causes of a tide of juvenile brutality that has terrorized the nation since 1985.
Some of the nation’s most influential crime experts blame “super-predators” - young people bred for violence through generations of poverty, fatherlessness, drug addiction and neglect.
But a growing number of scholars believe these mutants simply don’t exist. The real culprit, they say, is the profusion of lethal weapons in the hands of children.
“This,” said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “is really a gun story.”
And, while “super-predator” theorists are pushing lawmakers to enact tougher laws and build more prisons, a chorus of experts is urging them simply to take the guns away.
“Poverty and bad families are not what’s lying behind the violence. That’s just a mistaken analysis,” said David Kennedy, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “If the guns were taken out of the equation, it would all just go back to kid stuff.”
In fact, most youth violence experts believe that environmental factors have not changed enough in recent years to blame them for the increasing juvenile murder rate. They note that youth crime rates for non-violent felonies have not grown, regardless of the social circumstances, while homicide rates have soared.
Some experts - as well as the National Rifle Association - scoff at the notion that guns cause such crimes. They note that there has been no dramatic increase in the number of guns in America to correspond with the surge in teen killers.
The “super-predator” concept is the brainchild of John DiIulio, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University and a controversial crime guru to Republicans in Congress.
DiIulio unveiled the theory last year, most prominently in a November cover story for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.
Titled “The Coming of the Super-predators,” the article describes a looming “demographic crime bomb” as the number of boys in the crime-prone 14-to-17 group swells by 500,000 in the next five years.
“Each generation of crime-prone boys has been about three times as dangerous as the one before it,” DiIulio writes. Thus, “the demographic bulge of the next 10 years will unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals who will make even the (gang) leaders of the Bloods and the Crips … look tame by comparison.”
Why? Because these children have been raised in “moral poverty,” DiIulio writes, “surrounded by deviant, delinquent and criminal adults in abusive, violence-ridden, fatherless, Godless and jobless settings.”
But the theory has drawn serious challenges from crime experts.
“I don’t know of anybody doing work showing that kids are getting consistently more violent,” said Howard Snyder, research director at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.