Thursday, December 09, 1999

Who's at fault when kids play with guns?




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It pains me to be so predictable.

        My most ardent critic, Marty — at his semi-anonymous, totally outraged best — checked in right after the school shooting in Oklahoma.

        “Now, I suppose you'll write one of your stupid, stupid, stupid stories about guns,” he said in his by-now-familiar growl. “When will you bleeding hearts figure out we don't need more gun laws? We need to force these brats to take responsibility for what they do. Punish them. Nobody makes them take personal responsibility. That's the problem.”

        This advice was delivered, as usual, on my voice mail. First name only. No phone number. I have learned to recognize the voice. And the sentiments, which generally differ markedly from my own, I am proud to say.

Lethal Mr. Nice Guy
        Responsibility? Brats? Bleeding hearts? Marty will probably be horrified to know that this time, we agree about one thing. Maybe two.

        Another school shooting — the ninth since Pearl, Miss., in 1997, when two students were killed — does make my heart heavy. I don't think it's bleeding, but you could be right, Marty. You are definitely right about personal responsibility.

        Eyewitnesses told police that a seventh-grader at Fort Gibson Middle School pulled a semiautomatic handgun out of his backpack and opened fire Monday morning. Five students were wounded.

        A fellow student, another 13-year-old, told USA Today that the shooter“loves the outdoors and playing soccer and basketball. He loves Michael Jordan. I would have never thought he'd do something like this.”

        Well, of course, we'd never ask this boy to decide such things. He is too young. He is too young to vote, to drink, to smoke, to drive, to purchase firearms. At this newspaper, we think that if seventh-graders commit a crime, they are too young to have their names appear in print.

        But parents can leave guns lying around for their kids to use. In fact, they can teach them how to effectively kill with them, if they choose.

        The grievously misguided father of Kipland Kinkel purchased a semiautomatic Ruger rifle and two handguns for his son, who had boasted about stuffing firecrackers into a cat's mouth and promised in a journal that he planned to “kill everybody.”

        A family friend said William Kinkel bought the guns and taught his son to use them to try to redirect the boy's fascination with weapons into a supervised hobby.

        Kip Kinkel was 15 when he shot and killed both his parents, then headed off to Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., where he wounded 25 classmates and murdered two others.

Advanced firearms training
        The kid in Oklahoma apparently wasn't a very good shot. He fired a full, 15-round clip into a crowd of about 70 students standing less than 25 feet away. Nobody was killed.

        Andrew Golden at age 11 was far more effective. With his accomplice, Mitchell Johnson, he managed to kill four girls and a teacher and wound 10 others at his Jonesboro, Ark., school. He was taught to shoot by his father. He stole the guns from his grandfather.

        Police say the boy in Oklahoma was using a gun purchased by his father at a Wal-Mart in 1993. They found 200 rounds of ammunition in his backpack.

        “Let's sidestep the entire gun-control debate,” writes child psychologist Jonathan Kellerman in his book, Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, “but accept the painfully obvious fact that no kids should ever be allowed access to pistols, rifles and shotguns.

        “Children and teens are simply insufficiently socialized to handle implements designed, no matter how you gussy them up with clubs and guilds and marksmanship contests, to kill.”

        So, how about a compromise, Marty? Personal responsibility will be our common theme. Let's punish murderous brats, throw them in jail. And let's reserve a cell for adults who let them play with guns.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, National Public Radio's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.