Youth killings indict adults

Threat: Government, schools, businesses and parents must unite to stop the cancer of violence committed by children, a judge argues.

March 19, 2000|By Martin P. Welch

Last year's rampage at Columbine High School, the nation's worst schoolhouse shooting spree, left America numb and hoping such senseless killings would end. They haven't. Recently, a 6-year-old Michigan boy took a handgun to school and killed a classmate; a 7-year-old Alabama boy fatally shot a 5-year-old neighbor with an air gun loaded with pellets or BB shot; a man shot and killed three victims near Pittsburgh in an apparent hate crime; a Memphis gunman reportedly killed four people at a fire scene; and recently in Baltimore County, a mentally disturbed man allegedly shot and killed four people.

Unless we begin to take action, this senseless gun violence will never end.

I've spent six years hearing juvenile cases as a judge in Baltimore. I hear 500 to 600 cases a year, ranging from car theft to murder. Day in, day out, I sit on the bench hearing about the worst that our society has to bear, unspeakable acts committed by our children, and the abuse and neglect of our children.

I'm troubled by every act of senseless violence, but I'm particularly concerned by crimes committed by juveniles.

What does it say about us when our children kill?

I've concluded that we need a national policy addressing youth violence. The president should use his office as a bully pulpit to lead us to a solution to this growing cancer. Congress and federal officials should work with local governments and child advocates to develop legislation, policies and programs that will help us reach our at-risk children.

If we really believe that children are our future, then youth violence should be taken no less seriously than some of the other problems that have threatened our nation. Great leadership took the country through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and other calamities. With more of our children showing so little regard for their lives and the lives of others, youth violence should be the first threat we conquer in the 21st century.

But the president, the Congress and state and local governments cannot wage this battle alone. They cannot guarantee that our children are safe in our schools. Parental involvement and a return to core values are the keys. All too often, I have encountered juveniles who do not understand the sanctity of life. They have no empathy for others. They do not have parents or positive role models who teach them to be productive members of society.

Children, especially middle and high school students, can be brutally cruel to classmates who appear to be different. Tolerance is another core value that these children lack. Tolerance must be a condition of living in a free and civilized society. It comes from home training and/or religious training. In cases where children are not taught tolerance at home or through the faith community, then it should be taught in the schools. But our schools are overburdened and understaffed, and they cannot teach the core values that many parents fail to instill in their children. This must change.

Another part of the solution is a responsible entertainment industry. Certain segments of the entertainment industry have a stranglehold on the minds and lives of our children. That death grip equates with astronomical corporate profits. Today's popular culture, including commercial and cable TV, films, professional wrestling, violent video games, "gangsta" rap and heavy metal music, desensitize our children toward violence, sex and drug use.

Even in the presence of normal parental controls, our children carelessly drink from an intoxicating daily dose of violence and sex presented by the entertainment industry. The corporate conglomerates that profit from the production and distribution of this trash should bear responsibility for the carnage it produces.

The entertainment industry's responsibility for youth violence is no different from the liability the tobacco industry incurs for its deadly products. We should be pushing the entertainment industry to promote the core values that benefit our youth instead of hawking ideas that promote antisocial behavior and violence.

The last part of the needed solution is an epiphany within the gun industry and the gun lobby. The federal government requires the pharmaceutical industry to place child safety caps on aspirin bottles, while it has failed to mandate that gun manufacturers place a similarly simple safeguard on an instrument that has one purpose -- to kill.

It is unlikely that any of the school killings would have occurred without firearms. These weapons make killing too easy and impersonal. They wind up in the hands of children because we lack effective gun control laws. The gun industry and its supporters should recognize the problem and stop hiding behind a distorted view of the Second Amendment.

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