As the 2020 coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S. and quickly became the greatest public-health emergency of our time, another public-health crisis simultaneously infected the nation—the gun-violence epidemic.
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that gun violence increased 35% as more than 45,000 people fell victim to gun deaths, meaning approximately 124 people died from firearm-related causes per day. Academic research suggests that if left untreated, gun violence is detrimental to the overall mental, emotional and neurological development of the most vulnerable population exposed to it—our children.
Witnessing gun violence, including just hearing distant gunshots, can change a child’s brain chemistry and developmental progress, and can adversely cause anger, stress, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, withdrawal, post-traumatic stress and desensitization to violence. It can even encourage children to feel that the only way to ensure self-protection is to carry a gun themselves. But juveniles carrying guns blatantly disregards the law and can place them at greater risk for violent injury and/or death.
Harvard Medical research estimates that the economic impact of gun violence costs the U.S. approximately $557 billion a year, which is mostly attributed to the loss of quality of life that victims and their loved ones suffer through. Moreover, gun violence disproportionately and overwhelmingly affects underserved communities of color that already suffer from systemic racism and lack of funding and resources. Thus, gun violence is not only a public-health issue, it is a racial-justice issue.
The U.S. is exceptional in its political, geographic and sociodemographic polarization over gun culture. While Americans may be divided over the issue of gun control and the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, the law is clear that juveniles who have not yet reached the age of 18 in Mississippi are not legally permitted to possess or use a handgun, barring certain exceptions. Such exceptions include safety courses for hunting or firearms, target shooting at an authorized range, organized competitions involving the authorized use of firearms, and when the minor is using the firearm in self-defense in response to imminent danger.
Despite these laws, juvenile gun violence has increased throughout the nation, with a seemingly insurmountable upsurge in urban spaces across Mississippi. More young people have become both the victims of gun violence and perpetrators. The CDC reports Mississippi as the state with the highest firearm mortality rate.
Various studies conclude that there is a correlation between states’ gun law strength and their firearm mortality rate. For example, Everytown Research and Policy Gun Law Rankings reports that Mississippi has the weakest gun laws of all 50 states, while the states with the strongest gun laws—California, New York, Hawaii and New Jersey—have the lowest firearm mortality rate.
Restrict Juvenile Access To Guns, Prevent Recidivism
While the gun-control debate is controversial and often politically divisive, most Americans find common ground in condemning juvenile gun violence, but disagree on the best approach to remedy it. Here, our goal is not to trot out the various arguments for or against gun control. No single effort alone can serve as the prophylactic to mystically reduce youth access to guns overnight. Instead, the objective here is to carve out a comprehensive strategic plan to address the complexity and nuances that characterize juvenile gun violence.
The Youth Court Clinic of Mississippi College School of Law proposes the creation of gun courts in all youth courts across the state to restrict youth access to guns and help prevent unnecessary life loss at the hands of juveniles in Mississippi. While the views expressed here in this article are the authors’ alone, and not representative of the university, we strongly believe that implementation of gun courts as part of the juvenile justice system is an essential step to combat juvenile gun violence.
Mississippi Youth Courts are a division of the majority of its counties’ county court system, and its goal is not to punish juveniles, but to rehabilitate them and provide the resources needed to emerge from the juvenile justice system and become productive well-rounded citizens who will avoid the adult criminal justice system in the future.
The premise is that juveniles are young and redeemable, and that they possess a greater capacity to change when the court equips them with proper guidance and resources. Thus, the goal of gun court would be the creation of a specialty court designed to prosecute and adjudicate juvenile offenders as delinquents as a result of firearm-related offenses that did not cause serious bodily harm or injury to any victim.
The ultimate goal of the specialty court is to provide a treatment plan for juvenile offenders to reduce the number of violent crimes and handgun offenses juveniles commit and focus on gun safety and education, alternative nonviolent self-defense methods, strengthening the family unit via counseling if needed, addressing the socioeconomic inequalities that cause gun violence, strategically addressing the concerns specific to various communities and their demographics, parent inclusion, and involvement of community leaders and stakeholders.
The gun court would be modeled after our neighboring state of Alabama, which successfully implemented a similar specialty court in 1995, and has since witnessed a decline in the number of violent crimes and handgun offenses. Like Mississippi, Alabama was initially infected with a significant number of firearm-related fatalities, and leaders felt compelled to adopt new measures to reduce youth access to guns. The resources needed to pilot the gun court program in Mississippi are already in place in the various youth courts across the state.
For successful implementation, youth courts would need to hire additional probation officers, create and implement uniform statewide credentialing policies and procedures, and require robust training efforts to equip officers with the tools and skill sets to monitor and ensure that juveniles enrolled in the court program are in compliance with court orders. Such orders would mandate completion of training sessions to educate juveniles, deter delinquency, prevent their involvement in gun-related offenses in the future, and provide them with alternative nonviolent methods to resolve conflict and help them feel safe.
All efforts must be specifically tailored to the specific communities served by the specialty court and must take into account its demographics.
Juvenile gun violence is a public-health crisis in Mississippi and commands the attention of the juvenile justice system, law enforcement and community stakeholders. Those stakeholders include law schools, clinical law professors, as well as clinical law students who take an oath and are admitted to the limited practice of law to zealously advocate for and defend juvenile offenders.
The statewide implementation of gun court in our youth courts would be a unique collaboration between the judiciary and the legal clinic to resolve an urgent crisis that devastatingly affects our children, youth, families and our communities. We strongly recommend the implementation of the Gun Court program in every Youth Court in Mississippi to restrict juvenile’s access to guns, strategically prevent recidivism and improve the quality of life for all Mississippians.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.