It's Not the Guns

by Dr. Helen Smith

(May 11, 1999 12:48 p.m. EDT Nando Times

The bombs were still being defused at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. when the activists and interest groups began spinning the tragedy in support of their various agendas, culminating in this week's "violence summit" at the White House.

Most of these ideas wouldn't have done anything to prevent the Littleton massacre that supposedly served as their justification: It's as if the response to the Titanic's sinking were a demand for sprinkler systems on ships. But advocacy groups have their own agendas, and such a public relations opportunity is not to be missed. There were many such groups, including religious-right types arguing that students only kill each other because they no longer pray before classes. But just as fast out of the gate, nearly as silly and far more prominent in the media were the representatives of gun-control groups.

Just as the Christian Coalition crowd claimed that putting God, or at least organized teacher-led prayer, back into the schools will prevent tragedies in the future, so Sarah Brady and other anti-gun spokespeople were claiming that getting guns out of American homes would do the same thing. The difference is that the anti-gun folks have President Clinton on their side.

Never mind that the Littleton killers did much of their work with bombs. The gun-control solution is flawed for much more fundamental reasons. It rests on two key assumptions. As anyone who has worked with killer kids - and I have - can tell you, both of them are wrong.

The first assumption is that such tragedies occur because kids today have easier access to guns than in the past. But that is not the case. It is true that America has more guns overall, but the percentage of households having guns is about the same as it was decades ago. And guns, once proudly displayed over the mantel, are now far more likely to be locked up than in the past.

For the availability-of-guns explanation to make sense, it is necessary to believe that 20 or 30 years ago - say about the time Jerry Rubin was exhorting American teens to "burn plastic suburbia down" - groups of depraved teens sat around plotting killing sprees like that in Littleton and then gave up in dismay and slunk off to college when they realized that they would be unable to come up with any guns. How likely is that? The fact is, despite Rubin's exhortations, teens weren't thinking that way back then. If they had been, they could have gotten guns.

The second flawed assumption is that, in the absence of easily available guns, would-be killer kids wouldn't have done anything. The Littleton killers disproved that by producing an arsenal of explosive devices that the Weather Underground would have envied. But the problem goes beyond that. The availability-of-guns explanation assumes that otherwise harmless, even nearly normal, kids become dangerous only in the presence of guns. The truth is that these kids are dangerous anyway.

Teens who commit murder have usually been in trouble with the law before. They typically show mental problems, substance abuse, a history of violence, and a record of trouble with the juvenile authorities. That is certainly the case with the Littleton killers. Both Klebold and Harris had already faced juvenile charges, but were let off on a diversion program despite fairly obvious signs of violent behavior.

The Marines teach that it is people who are deadly: A weapon is just the tool. Violent kids, unfortunately, tend to take the same attitude. As one of my clients on trial for assault stated, "So let them take away my guns, I would just use a knife (bomb, fire or whatever)." Another 16 year-old recently told me, "Violence doesn't come from the media, music, movies nor easy access to guns. I have easy access to guns, I get pretty mad often. But I don't go and kill people." This is also the consensus of just about everyone who has worked with violent teens. As Gitta Sereny, a journalist who has written extensively on child murder, said in Salon magazine, "If these kids didn't have guns, they probably would have had something else."

The real problem is not that American teens have greater access to guns - or to propane and kitchen timers - than they had decades ago. They don't. The real problem is that they now feel the urge to use them for mass murder. As Sereny notes, they reach the breaking point without adults even noticing.

Political quick fixes may advance the agendas of advocacy groups, and may make people feel better, but they won't solve the problem. Worse yet, they may distract from the real action necessary to prevent such tragedies. Instead of symbolic solutions, we need more counselors in schools, a "zero tolerance" program for bullying and ostracism at least as tough as those aimed at weapons and drugs, and a recognition that kids in trouble with juvenile authorities are most likely to pose a risk in the future. Those are real solutions. Anything less doesn't have a prayer of succeeding.

Published May 11, 1999 Nando Times