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December 21, 2010

You've Got to Be Taught

As one media outlet after another conducts end-of-the-year reviews of the events of 2010—and images of extremists carrying loaded firearms to presidential speeches and children being terrorized by gunfire flash across my television screen—I am struck anew by the prescient words of Oscar Hammerstein in the 1945 musical "South Pacific":

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear
You've got to be taught
From year to year
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught
To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught
Before it's too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

Exciting research data on the Millennial Generation, however, gives me tremendous hope for the future. Perhaps we can all vow to be a little more tolerant, a little more open, and a little more peaceful in the New Year. Happy Holidays to all!

December 13, 2010

The Shot Ignored Around the World

On November 29, at the close of a seemingly normal school day at Marinette High School in Wisconsin, 15 year-old Sam Hengel walked up to the front of his class, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, and shot a hole in the room’s film projector. Hengel then held his teacher and 23 students hostage for approximately five hours before shooting himself when police entered the classroom. He succumbed to his self-inflicted injury the following morning. Authorities reported that the 9mm Luger High Point and .22-caliber Ruger semiautomatic handguns that Hengel brought to class with him that day were taken from a relative. Hengel’s duffel bag also held more than 200 rounds of ammunition. Grieving family and friends were baffled by the actions of the “model kid” they knew and loved.

Had this tragedy occurred in any other civilized country, it would have been breaking national news, with citizens glued to their television sets. Here in America, Sam Hengel’s death hardly made a blip on the media radar. The same disinterest was displayed recently when 19-year old Colton Tooley brought a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle onto the Texas University campus and ran amok before eventually committing suicide. In a country that loses more than 3,000 children and teens to gun violence ever year, these stories are, sadly, business as usual. Somehow, we’ve become tolerant of the fact that our nation makes deadly weapons readily accessible to young people.

To make matters worse, policy makers and jurists across the country are now considering measures that would put our teenagers at additional risk. First, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is pushing legislation in at least 10 states (Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia) that would force colleges and universities to allow guns on their campuses. Currently, only a limited number of schools in Utah, Colorado, Michigan and Virginia allow students and faculty to bring concealed handguns into classrooms, dormitories, libraries, etc. Both the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) strongly oppose the gun lobby’s campaign. IACLEA has said that it is “concerned that concealed carry laws have the potential to dramatically increase violence on college and university campuses that our Members are empowered to protect.”

Additionally, the NRA has filed two lawsuits in federal court in Texas that seek to overturn longstanding laws that prohibit 18-20 year olds from purchasing handguns from federally licensed dealers and carrying these weapons in public. During the past three years, the NRA’s plaintiff in these cases, 18-year-old James A. D'Cruz, has posted a series of violent comments on his Facebook Wall, including, "I will stare into your eyes as I pull the trigger and laugh as you hit the ground with your last, pathetic breath,” and “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, that’s why I take their heads.” Such comments differ little, if at all, from comments we have seen in recent years from school shooters. The NRA apparently has no regard for this young man’s well-being, or for the well-being of any young people in his age range. Currently, Americans ages 18-20 account for approximately 5 percent of the population but nearly 20 percent of homicide and manslaughter arrests. Allowing this demographic to buy handguns from licensed firearm dealers will clearly benefit gun industry profits, but not human life.

There are real solutions available to prevent the deaths of teens like Sam Hengel and Colton Tooley. 27 states currently have Child Access Prevention laws in place that impose criminal liability on adults who negligently leave firearms accessible to children. A 2000 study by the U.S. Secret Service found that school shooters got their guns from relatives more than 65% of the time. Studies have shown that Child Access Prevention laws are effective in stopping children from gaining easy access to firearms. "Adolescents act impulsively, whether or not they have psychiatric problems," said the associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Matthew Miller. "It's up to parents—not children—to provide a safe environment."

We will have to overcome NRA opposition to such sensible policies to protect young people, but what else is new? First, however, we must acknowledge and overcome our current state of apathy about youth violence. We can’t save thousands of lives until we feel a sense of loss for an individual life like that of Sam Hengel.