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Children, Minors and Adolescents
How VPC Blurs Those Distinctions in Its Latest “Study”

by Sean Oberle

November 30, 2001

The newest “study” about handguns from Violence Policy Center (VPC) provides a prime example of what I object to with many gun control ideas: identifying problems, but either jumping to unrealistic solutions or not identifying solutions at all.

VPC’s “study,” Kids in the Line of Fire, is a combination of both. It identifies no explicit solution, but its implicit solution — a ban — is unworkably unrealistic (leaving aside important questions of rights).

On the other hand, VPC almost came out with honest data for its “study” ... almost. The November 28 “study” authored by Karen Brock at least:

1) Defines openly what the organization means by child, as opposed to other factoid-producing “studies” that lump in 18- and 19-year-olds (and occasionally older) with children but do not reveal this fact.

2) Uses a definition that, while problematic, is not immediately objectionable.

VPC’s defines child as anyone 17 or younger — in other words, minors. My initial reaction was to think, “That’s not so bad,” but I soon realized that this reaction perhaps was due to being so used to the 19-year-old “children” lie, that VPC’s use of the border between minors and age of majority seemed good in comparison[*].

Nonetheless Misleading

However, VPC's definition nonetheless is misleading, especially given the “findings” of VPC that two “children” per day are murdered with handguns and that nearly one-third of “children” murdered with handguns were the victims of other “children.” What VPC has done is lump in half of one group (adolescents) with another group (children). There are two problems with this tactic: 

1) First, while taking cover behind the legal definition of minor, it still is nothing more than the old trick of using statistics that reflect a problem of the late teens (and early twenties) but using a term — children — that creates an image of prepubescent grade schoolers and even of toddlers.

2) Second, in exchange for the appeal to emotion derived from the term children, the tactic deflects attention away from the real problem — that of adolescent violence. That’s good from a propaganda perspective, but horrid from a useful and valid violence policy perspective.

Psychologically, adolescents are neither children nor adults. Thus, legally, they can be either minors or adults — they represent a transition, one that straddles the arbitrary 18-year-old legal border for adult rights and responsibilities. Our laws reflect the fuzzy nature of adolescence, providing for gradual transition into adult rights. Adolescents get to drive and hold jobs without parental permission before 18 (mostly at 16). They get to vote and make legal decisions about themselves at 18. They get to buy alcohol and handguns at 21.

The bottom line is that murder spikes during adolescence in terms of both victims and perpetrators — rising sharply in the mid-teens and dropping off in the mid-twenties. Furthermore, males overwhelmingly cause this spike. Thus, by mixing some adolescents in with children, VPC uses figures that more closely represent male adolescents than children. However, saying, “two adolescent males per day” just doesn’t have the same propaganda effect as saying, “two children per day,” does it? 

Understanding VPC’s Mission

As I stated above, VPC offers no solutions. It simply uses this “study” to attack guns and gun manufacturers. For example, Brock notes in the press release about the “study”:

“Children can't legally buy handguns, children can't legally possess handguns — yet they are killing each other with handguns. The reason: children still have easy access to handguns because of the lax practices of an unregulated gun industry and the mistaken idea that a handgun in the home offers protection, when in reality it is far more likely to result in horrific consequences.”

Leaving aside the factual errors (the gun industry most certainly is regulated when it comes to access by minors, and VPC’s risk/benefit position is based on incomplete Kellerman-like factoids), demonizing objects and people are not solutions. 

But given VPC’s mission, this ploy makes sense. Boiled down to its essentials, that mission is to demonize guns. VPC’s goal is to convince the public that guns — handguns in particular — are irredeemably dangerous products (See: About VPC). VPC openly advocates a total handgun ban (See: VPC's 1999 Handgun Ban Backgrounder). Indeed, VPC’s pro-ban position goes so far that it rejects the supposed middleground idea of licensing and registration (See my essay: Violence Policy Gambit).

Thus, the solution in this latest “study” is implied, and understood, by those who know VPC’s mission — ban handguns. 

Why doesn’t VPC just say this? I don't know. Perhaps the group accepts the idea of a ban as so axiomatic that it does not believe it is necessary to state it. Perhaps it knows that the general public, while often more receptive to background checks and registration, typically opposes outright bans from the perspectives of both rights and utility.

I find the latter to be more likely. In order to reach its goal of banning handguns, VPC must overcome public rejection of that idea — the path to that ban is to demonize guns and their makers.

Sean Oberle is a Featured Writer and gun control analyst for Reach him at View other articles from him at


[*] However, VPC does revert into the “children over 18” distortion at least once in the study. It states in the introduction to the “study”:

“Although children and teenagers cannot buy guns legally, they can possess them. This is a reflection of the patchwork nature of laws regulating firearms possession by juveniles. Federal law prohibits anyone under 21 years old from purchasing a handgun from the holder of a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and prohibits handgun possession by anyone under the age of 18 years old—although the law contains numerous exemptions. The Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made it illegal for any person, with some exceptions, to sell or transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to anyone under 18 years of age.”

Note two contradictory points in this quotation using VPC’s “17 and younger” definition: 

1) “children” can possess handguns, but 

2) possession is banned by anyone under 18.