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Time to aim our outrage at country’s gun lobby

The day after the children-on-children killings at the Jonesboro, Ark., middle school, we joined in the hand-wringing, the head-shaking, the expressions of helplessness.

How could this happen? What could go on inside an 11-year-old’s head that would provoke him to murder?

Of course, there are no ready answers. The post-trauma angst is becoming a hollow ritual.

Jonesboro is the latest formerly little-known town -- after places like West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss.; Lynville, Tenn.; Moses Lake, Wash.; and Blackville, S.C. -- to become notorious after kids have taken up firearms and wiped out other kids and, in some cases, teachers.

Hand-wringing will no longer do. Nor will it do any longer to simply moan in despair over the deeper causes -- those below the surface of the gunfire and immediate rage -- of these horrors. Something must be done, and the most immediate and clearest goal is the elimination of guns.

Everyone already knows the responses from the National Rifle Association, the lobbying group whose right-to-bear-arms mania long ago went way beyond the bounds of common sense or any acceptable constitutional premise.

The NRA should be in its place, and that place should be a very tiny corner of the political stage.

Who could have dreamed 10 years ago that the tobacco lobby, another death-dealing interest group that had mountains of money to throw around legislative corridors, would be in retreat, opening its records and its shameful past to investigators. We demanded it and the lobby is being cut down to manageable size.

Consider that the demands of the public have even changed the military’s attitude toward the battlefield. No politician today wants to be responsible for sending young people off to war if there is a risk that any significant number might come back in coffins.

Public opinion is a strange consideration, perhaps, for those who would make war. But it is a consideration that has been demanded by a culture increasingly aware of the futility of most armed conflict and of the unwillingness of mothers and fathers to lose their offspring to enemy fire.

If only we cared enough about our kids to take on the National Rifle Association in the same way. If the military can be made to feel the heat of parents’ passion, if the tobacco lobby can be forced finally into retreat, certainly the NRA can be pushed to the political margins where it belongs.

Imagine 5,000 soldiers a year coming home in coffins from some foreign conflict. The administration would feel immense pressure to quickly get the rest of our boys home safely.

More than 5,000 children a year are killed by guns in the United States. Imagine those coffins lined up on some dock waiting for shipment to the burial ground.

The war today is here, not on some foreign battlefield.

No one can dispute that enormous forces, some of them easy to detect, others hidden, are working on our kids these days. We live in a violent culture. Families are splitting up at a record rate, and many others are strained to breaking.

But the common component of the recent spate of killings is easy access to a dizzying assortment of guns.

Listen to Dr. Kathy Kauffer Christoffel, founder of the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan, a Chicago network of medical groups that views handgun violence as a public health problem. Christoffel told The New York Times, “We have to stop dismissing these events by saying these kids are nuts and start saying this gun violence is a feature of the modern world that we need to change.”

In the most recent killings, one of the accused, the 11-year-old, was not only taught the ritual of hunting, but was being schooled by his father in the use of a handgun to hit a moving target. The children reportedly stole some of the weapons used from one of their grandfathers.

Some of us are crazy in love with guns, and all of us are paying for the addiction. Kids won’t begin to stop killing kids until adults begin behaving differently.

We don’t need adult justice for youngsters, we need adult justice for adults -- those who teach kids to use guns; those who supply kids with guns; those who carelessly leave guns around so kids can get their hands on them; those who manufacture the guns used by kids.

And we need outrage from a public sick of the killing. The NRA is not a noble organization, though it slickly markets itself with such likable characters as Charleton Heston. Heston’s new role is a sinister role that attempts to put a facade of respectability on an evil agenda.

We have long been the most heavily armed of Western cultures. It is no coincidence that we have also been the most violent and deadly.

Our kids deserve better. Demanding tough gun laws is the least we can do as a start.

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998