WASHINGTON - A debate is mounting over the causes of juvenile brutality that is terrorizing the nation.
Some of the country'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 such people 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."
"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 be the cause of the increasing juvenile murder rate.
They note that youth crime rates for nonviolent felonies have not grown, regardless of the social circumstances, while homicide rates have soared.
The question is hardly academic. Just last week, two Detroit police officers were gunned down on the city's northwest side after sighting what they thought were two truants walking along the side of the road.
Summoned to the police cruiser, one of the pair smiled and opened fire. Officer Kelvin Patrick was hit on the arm and back and faces the possibility of paralysis. His partner, Kathy Warren, was shot in the arm; she was released from the hospital Tuesday.
The gunman and his companion, described by witnesses as 16 to 22 years old, have not been found.
NRA scoffs at blaming guns
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.
"If some people, particularly the people who want to ban guns, say that guns are the spark for kids' committing crime, that's ridiculous," said Liz Swasey, director of the NRA's CrimeStrike division. "Hundreds of thousands of kids use guns every day for hunting and competition, and they don't hurt anybody. The spark is kids who don't know right from wrong."
That's where the "super-predator" concept comes in.
The term 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" due to explode as the number of boys in the crime-prone 14-to-17 age group swells by 500,000 in the next five years.
Research by University of Pennsylvania criminologist Marvin Wolfgang shows that about 6 percent of boys born in a given year will commit half the serious crimes by the group. So, in 2000, the nation can expect about 6 percent of the males in this baby boomlet - 30,000 of them - to become serious teenage criminals.
But DiIulio argues they will be something worse.
"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."
`Super-predator' theory assailed
But the theory has also drawn serious challenges from crime experts, who say no research supports it.
"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, which analyzes juvenile-crime data for the Justice Department. "Everybody believes that just because it sounds good."
Asked last week to cite research supporting his theory, DiIulio declined to be interviewed. He did supply a new, unpublished paper that reasserts his contention that "super-predators" are coming.
DiIulio cites the by-now-familiar litany of teenage-crime statistics: Gun homicides by juveniles have tripled since 1983; arrests of boys ages 15 to 18 on weapons charges have more than doubled. And murders related to teen gangs have nearly quadrupled since 1980, making it the fastest-growing category of murder.
One theory blames crack dealing
Carnegie Mellon's Blumstein, who was recently named director of a new National Consortium on Violence Research, has formulated a theory that is widely hailed as the most straightforward explanation for the skyrocketing rate of teenage murders:
Through 1985, America's adolescent crime rate was remarkably stable. Even though more children were being born to single mothers living in poverty, and more of those children were growing up well-acquainted with drugs and violence, and more of those children were being sent to failing public schools and coming home to empty houses, the level of teenage violence did not change much.
Then, in 1985, murders committed by teens began to soar. Gun murders accounted for the entire increase, nearly tripling between 1984 and 1994. Meanwhile, non-gun murders stayed flat, according to FBI statistics.
The flood of murders coincides with the arrival of crack cocaine in places such as Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. Powerful crack crews recruited young dealers in unprecedented numbers, handing out guns like McDonald's hands out uniforms. As the crews fought over turf, murders by young people with guns began to rise.
From New York and Los Angeles, crack moved into smaller towns, and now their murder rates are up. The turf battles are largely over in the big cities, and murder rates are down there.
But, Blumstein said, the guns remain. And they have since spread from the original crack dealers to other teens "who go to the same school or walk the same streets." Today, guns and gun violence are being "decoupled" from the drug trade and are spreading throughout adolescent communities.
Now, Blumstein writes, "many of the fights that would otherwise have taken place and resulted in nothing more serious than a bloody nose now turn into shootings."
According to the most recent FBI statistics, children under 18 committed 3,700 murders in 1994, 82 percent of them with guns.