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Jewish World Review March 12, 2001 / 17 Adar, 5761

Iain Murray

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Zero Tolerance Yes, But for Bullies, not Guns -- ANOTHER tragic school shooting, another two families devastated, another severe blow to America's self image. The terrible events in Santee cast a cloud over us all. We continue to ask ourselves questions. How can we let this happen? Why did it happen this time? What can we do to stop it ever happening again? Unfortunately, all too often emotion clouds our thinking as we cast about, landing on answers which may seem obvious but do nothing to solve the problem. We need a new approach. If we respond to this event they way we have responded before, chances are something like it will happen again.

The first thing we should remember is that school shootings are very, very rare (part of the reason why they are so shocking). According to a list compiled by the Associated Press, this school shooting was the first involving the murder of a classmate by students who might be thought to know what they were doing since the murder of a 13-year-old girl by a 12-year-old boy in Deming, N.M., on Nov. 19, 2000. The last fatal incident before that was Columbine, almost two years ago. Three such fatalities in almost two years is not a catastrophic rate-especially considering more young people have probably been shot for their sneakers in that time. In the two years before Columbine, there were at least 12 such deaths.

Why did it happen this time? Although the authorities have said that they are "not sure in any real way we will ever know why," the circumstantial evidence seems pretty clear. Charles Andrew Williams had been bullied and picked on remorselessly. His main hobby was skateboarding, but his skateboard had been stolen twice in recent months. According to one report, his bedroom had been broken into and vandalized, with his television screen shot through. This goes beyond being pushed around, far beyond the insults that "unpopular" students are subjected to day after day. Perhaps the authorities are right, and there is more here than meets the eye. But it begs belief that they would not have known the pressure Williams was under and were not prepared to take measures to relieve it.

But the initial reaction to the incident, and the instant answer to stopping events like this happening again, was to focus on the gun and to call for more restrictions. Yet gun laws once again proved ineffective in stopping this crime - by one count possibly 9 Californian laws were broken. Others argued that the reason school shootings happen more in modern times is because of the explosion in the national gun supply. But the percentage of American homes possessing guns has remained fairly steady over the last forty years according to Gallup polls, and the emergence of safety laws probably means that, if anything, youths are less able to get hold of their parents' guns than in previous decades. That cannot be the answer to why these incidents happen.

The fact remains, however, that these youngsters do gain access to guns. Should we use this incident as the final catalyst for amending the Second Amendment and banning handguns outright? This is a respectable argument, for it recognizes the ineffectiveness of current gun control laws in preventing this kind of shooting. But it ignores the defensive use of guns that almost certainly save lives and property every day. In my home country, England, where guns are banned outright, burglars have a field day: over fifty percent of burglaries take place with the home-owner present, with consequent danger to the occupant. The equivalent figure in the US is less than ten percent, because of the risk to the burglar from armed property-holders. A ban on handguns, which would certainly fail to sweep up many thousands of illegally-held weapons, would probably lead to a slight reduction in the murder rate (although most firearms murders are committed with illegally-held weapons) but also to increases in the rates of assault and property crime. It would also probably put more strain on police forces.

The cost to the country may easily be greater than the benefit.

In fact, as we have already seen, guns are not the root cause of school shootings. If a school has a policy of zero tolerance for children "playing at guns" in the schoolyard but fails to notice when pupils are being strained to an extreme breaking point by cruel and unusual bullying, then there is something badly wrong with our priorities. If focusing on guns as the problem after Columbine has blinded us to the problems that cause youths to reach for their guns, then we have made a huge mistake. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." But we need to know what to look for first. The answer is to look to the children.

Dr. Iain Murray analyzes juvenile justice and gun issues for STATS - the Statistical Assessment Service - a Washington DC based non-profit, non-partisan organization that looks at scientific and social research. You may comment by clicking here.

02/14/01: Brain food for kids?
01/25/01: A bloody mess
12/27/00: The 'domestic violence' spook
12/21/00: 'Truth-seeking' journalists and their misleading stories
12/13/00:The media's margin for error
12/01/00: How to save future elections
11/16/00: Dubious data dredging in Palm Beach
11/19/00: Last voter out, please turn off the TV


© 2001, STATS