Bottom-line on gun issue is question of access

April 27, 1999|By Susan Reimer

SAT SCORES, high school graduation rates and college enrollment are up.

Teen sex, teen pregnancy and teen abortion are down.

Condom use is up. Seat belt use is up.

Physical fights on school property are down.

Alcohol is used by an alarming 50 percent of all teens, but the good news is, it's not increasing.

These statistics and others like them paint a picture of teen-agers today who are smarter and more ambitious, healthier and more safety conscious; wiser and more gifted; optimistic and with positive visions of their own futures.

But one statistic mars this smiling portrait of our youngsters: Two-thirds of them in grades 6 through 12 say they can get a gun within 24 hours, according to national survey results provided by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

"Many children can get a gun quicker than they can get a book out of the library," said Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund. "That puts us all at risk."

As the nation deconstructs the tragedy of Columbine

High School, the blame is placed in familiar places: the disintegration of the nuclear family; the pressure and isolation of super-sized high schools; the desensitizing of children by a malevolent culture.

Bad parents, violent music, video games and movies. The usual suspects.

"You have to blame the parents of these two boys," said National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston. "People have to be taught that actions have consequences."

But no matter how disconnected parents are, no matter how many hours are spent playing "Doom," no matter how out-of-it a kid feels at school, nobody dies if nobody has a gun.

A kid can't mow down his classmates with a kitchen knife or a set of brass knuckles. He can only do that with guns.

Gun advocates say that 43 percent of homes with children under 17 have guns. If access to guns caused kids to kill each other, bodies would be piled three-deep, they argue.

But I see the other side of this argument: If there were no guns, kids who were so angry that they wanted to kill would not be able to do it with the kind of efficiency demonstrated in Colorado and at other schools in the last year.

A loaded gun is a power rush for the person holding it. If that person is a teen-ager whose immature mind is riding the crest of a hormonal rage, the result has become predictably horrific.

The rest matters, too, of course.

Parents have to find the time the pay attention to their teen-agers, no matter how unpleasant that may be for both of them. How, when most teens can't fix themselves a bowl of cereal without leaving a mess in three rooms, could Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold make 30 pipe bombs without the parents noticing?

And parents have to say, even when it will cause an unpleasant scene, "Hey -- turn that stuff off. It can't possibly be good for you."

If parents don't have the time or energy or sophistication to screen video games and Internet sites and television movie channels, and they are worried about what their kids are seeing, they have to have the guts to pull the plug.

Says Edelman: "Parents need to keep a better hold on what their kids are doing, who their kids are with, where they're going, and monitor all of their activities."

And teachers have to be human beings first and bureaucrats last.

"I've got a problem and the teachers are worried about whether I have my shirt tucked in," one student said during an MTV forum on the Littleton slayings. "How am I supposed to go to people like that?"

School isn't about dress codes and promotion rates and test scores and departmental meetings and planning time and in-service meetings. School is about children. Presumably that's why teachers get into the business in the first place.

These are vague, insubstantial human sensitivities I am suggesting. Who is a good parent? What makes a teacher wise, respected and connected to his students? I don't think you can write a manual for either.

But you can collect the guns and melt them down.

You can make it hard to near-impossible for an angry child to buy one or find one.

Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan said stricter laws would not have prevented the Colorado tragedy. "The question is who has the weapons, the good people or those who are ugly and warped," he said.

But if this country is reluctant to ask if a gun customer has a criminal record, who is going to decide of he or she is "ugly and warped?"

We may never know why children shot their teachers and classmates in Jonesboro, Edinboro, West Paducah, Springfield and Littleton. The reasons may be too complex for a single, simple answer. But these horrible tragedies had one single, simple thing in common -- the kids had access to guns.

We may never be able to cleanse the culture or see into the hearts and minds of our troubled kids. But we are not helpless to stop this carnage. We can ban the sale of assault weapons, automatic weapons, semi-automatic pistols or magazines that can hold large quantities of ammunition.

We can do that much.

Save your stamps, Second Amendment fans and NRA members. Write your congressman, write your mother, write your grocery list, but don't write me.

I don't want to hear that worn-out, "if you ban guns, only the criminals will have guns" riff that is trotted out every time the innocent die by gunfire.

The respect and sympathy expressed by the NRA after the tragedy of Littleton filled me with cynical fury. These are the people who have stubbornly thwarted nearly every attempt to restrict the flow of guns in this country and there is blood on their hands.

Heston says children must learn that actions have consequences. So does inaction. What will move adults to act, if not this?

There are angry, disaffected kids like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold everywhere, and as long as there are guns everywhere, what happened at Columbine High School is going to happen again.

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