However wide of mark, gun poll manages to hit home

MIKE LITTWIN

July 21, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

OK, we live in a violent world. Who can say we don't? TV is violent. Movies are violent. Life is violent.

Grown-ups are violent. Kids are violent.

And guns?

We've got guns like nobody's business. I see a number like 200 million guns in America, and it makes me sick.

Just so you know who I am. Anti-violence. Pro-gun control.

Then I read a Harris poll on the front page of the paper yesterday that really hit home. It's a poll concerning guns and kids in America. The results, well, blew me away.

Try this number from a serious poll done by serious people and check your own reaction: Nine percent of kids in school from the sixth to the 12th grade say they have fired a gun at someone.

Let's look at it again. These are kids distributed, according to the pollsters, among urban, suburban and rural schools. Also among public, private and Catholic schools. These are all our kids, in other words.

And of all kids, 9 percent -- 1 of every 11 -- says he or she has fired a gun at someone. Can that be true? It scares you to death. We're talking all kids -- white and black, male and female, urban and suburban, rich and poor. One of every 11.

There are other numbers. Eleven percent of these same kids say someone has fired a gun at them. That's 1 in 9 -- of all kids from sixth grade through high school -- who've been shot at.

These horrifying statistics lead, inevitably, to one of two conclusions:

* We have raised a generation of terrible marksmen.

* Or, we have raised a generation of terrible fibbers.

Here's what those numbers would mean:

Let's take Baltimore County, a typical American place to live. It's part urban, part suburban, even part rural. In the Baltimore County school system, there are 93,000 kids. For the sake of argument, let's say 45,000 of them are in middle and high schools.

If 9 percent of those kids had fired a gun at someone, that would mean approximately 4,000 Baltimore County juveniles would be out there doing that predatory teen thing with a gun.

In the county last year, there were seven juveniles arrested for murder. If 4,000 had fired guns at someone, only seven of these kids managed to put their victims away. But those are just numbers. And maybe I'm naive.

So I called the people on the front line -- principals and assistant principals from Baltimore and Baltimore County schools. They're not naive.

And none of them -- I talked to eight -- could see how those numbers made any sense. Or believed another poll number: that 4 percent of the kids had carried a gun to school in the past year.

"Those numbers seem very high to me," said Leon Tillett, the new principal at Patterson High in the city. "Hopefully they're high. I was principal of Herring Run Middle the last three years. We had 1,400 kids. We got some BB guns, some toy guns that looked real. I know there are guns out there available to kids, but we never found an actual gun at school."

Don Mohler is the principal at Catonsville High in the county, and his experience was little different.

"In four years at Catonsville and five previously at Dundalk Middle, I never took [away] a gun," Mohler said. "I'm not naive enough to say that if you locked the place down like it was a prison you wouldn't find a single gun, but we haven't found one.

"At that age, kids are going to exaggerate. You find the same thing in polls about drug and alcohol abuse. You find adults wanting to believe things aren't as bad as they are and kids wanting to make things seem worse. Somewhere in between, you find the truth."

Kids will exaggerate. Ask a typical 16-year-old male, and he'll tell you how many six-packs he drinks and how he lost his virginity when he was 10.

And, yes, adults want to believe it's not that bad.

Things are bad, folks. The poll says 59 percent of kids have access to guns. That number sounds reasonable. But in the same poll, it says 15 percent of kids have carried a handgun in the past 30 days. Can that be true?

My guess is that some kids have a tendency to give a pollsters what they believe the cool response to be. Maybe that's the scariest about this poll, that so many kids think having a gun -- or, worse, shooting a gun -- is the hip thing to do.

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