The “School Violence”
and “Kids and Guns” Hoaxes
Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of 12,500 high school seniors by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, is one of America’s most widely quoted surveys on youth behavior. Its release every December provokes a media and official frenzy over student drug use. Curiously, one of the survey’s most interesting findings relevant to one of this era’s biggest fears is never quoted: its findings regarding school violence trends.
Despite their worshipful citation in press and official forums, self-reporting surveys are weak, highly suspect research tools. However, Monitoring is the only long-term consistently-administered survey of school violence available, and its trends follow the crime cycles in larger society. Its finding that both white and black students report less weapons-related victimization in school today than in the 1970s is consistent with other self-reported violence (students also report fewer instances of being deliberately injured by persons without weapons, being threatened with weapons, or being threatened with any kind of violence at school). The stable, generally declining pattern of violence among white students and the higher, cyclical pattern among black students is consistent with FBI crime reports.
In 2002, 4% of high school seniors report being injured by someone with a weapon at school, on the way to or from school, or at a school event sometime in the year—down from 5-6% in the 1970s and 1980s and one of the lowest percentage in the survey’s 24-year history. If that makes schools seem pretty dangerous, reflect on these even more unsettling perspectives: school safety and crime reports show only one–sixth of 1% of the nation’s murders occur in schools, and hospital emergency department records analyzed by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found homes, workplaces, and streets account for eight, five, and 2.5 times more violence-related injuries, respectively, than do schools.
School and police agencies report the rate of injury with weapons in senior high schools is 46 per 100,000 students, and while they don’t learn about most assaults, serious injuries would not escape notice. American schools are the site of a good deal of violence, but apparently not as much as other institutions, led by the family. Thus, statements that students are safer from murder and serious injury at school than at home, in the streets, or at work are factual but not necessarily comforting. The only comforting aspect is that most school violence is apparently low-level.
The Monitoring findings also directly contradict anecdotal quotes in the press from school personnel, experts, and teen-book authors that today’s students are far more violent than those of past generations. These anecdotal quotes also appear at odds with what most teachers report. A 1997 Los Angeles Times survey of 545 students, 1,100 teachers, and 2,600 parents and other adults that found that 91% of students and 92% of teachers in Los Angeles (supposedly America’s arch-drug/gang/gunplay capital) rated their schools as “safe.” Only 14% of students had ever been in a fight at school, and only 1% had been in a fight involving a weapon.
However, adults not involved with public schools as teachers or parents—that is, ones whose impressions derive from media images and quotable authorities—were six to 10 times more likely to rate schools as imperiled by gangs, violence, and drugs than were the teachers and students inhabiting those schools. Times editors (the same ones who editorially lament lack of public support for school funding) apparently thought the public was insufficiently terrified of public schools, as its stepped-up alarmism over “school violence” described in Chapter 1 indicates.
That there is some violence in public schools—led by the school shootings of 1997-2001 that received gargantuan media attention—properly draws concern, outrage, even (in cases such as the Columbine High School slaughter) horror. But there is no excuse for Americans being surprised that schools are not violence-free. The lack of perspective was pointed out by Justice Policy Institute president Vincent Schiraldi in a November 22, 1999, commentary in the Los Angeles Times:
Nowadays, it is impossible to talk about juvenile crime and not discuss school shootings. Yet school shootings are extremely rare and not on the increase. In a population of about 50 million schoolchildren, there were approximately 55 school-associated violent deaths in the 1992–93 school year and fewer than half that in the 1998–99 school year. By comparison, in 1997, 88 people were killed by lightening—what might be considered the gold standard for idiosyncratic events. Children who are killed in the United States are almost never killed inside a school. Yes, 12 kids were killed at Columbine. But by comparison, every two days in the U.S., 11 children die at the hands of their parents or guardians.
Gunning for Students
The term “youth violence,” a media and official staple, is inherently prejudicial. To understand this, consider how we treat other demographic groups. Example: About one million Orthodox Jews live in the United States. Crime statistics aren’t kept by creed, but assume a half–dozen commit murder every year.
This would give Orthodox Jews one of the lowest homicide rates of any group—probably the case. That means that every two months, on average, an Orthodox Jew is arrested for murder. Let’s further assume that powerful political demagogues want to depict Jews as the font of violence, and the major media and institutions, as always, go along. Every couple of months, then, the press erupts, headlining “another Jew violence” tragedy, with sensational pictures and overwrought speculation as to “why Jews are so violent.” The press and politicians resolutely ignore thousands of intervening murders by non-Jews, including murders of Jews by Gentiles, while connecting every Jewish homicide, no matter how occasional, into a “spate of Jew killings.” Conservatives angrily demand tougher policing of Jews. Liberals blame violent Jewish cultural messages. Politicians and private institutions form a National Campaign to Prevent Jew Violence.
We need not add the seig-heils to realize that equating Jews and violence isn’t an expression of science or genuine concern, but rank anti-Semitism. Linking an entire population class with a negative behavior practiced by only a few of its members is bigotry, regardless of which group is singled out. The politician-media-institution campaign on “youth violence” is bigoted and devoid of genuine concern for youths. Real concern would involve lamenting the major causes of violence against youths, yet politicians and institutions deploring “school violence” and pushing the National Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence concern themselves only with the tiny fraction of murdered children and youth that is politically advantageous to highlight while downplaying larger dangers to the young.
The target of aging America’s rage is all youths, not just the 13 kids who committed the recently publicized shootings taking 31 lives in 12 schools in four years (in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; Littleton, Colorado; Conyers, Georgia; Fort Gibson, Oklahoma; Mount Morris, Michigan; West Palm Beach, Florida; Santee, California). These aren’t all the school shooters; only the young ones with white victims we choose to care about. Compare: 25 million teenagers, 18 million of them white, attend 20,000 American secondary schools every day. Another 25 million pre-teens attend elementary schools.
“Columbine” (it seems a grievous injustice on top of tragedy to equate a school’s name with mass murder) revealed the individual pathologies of two high school boys; “post-Columbine” revealed the mass pathology of America’s institutions. Three years later, I still can’t pick up a copy of Youth Today without seeing program ads blaring, “The Lessons of Columbine,” crack a newspaper without seeing some Ph.D. declaiming “the new face of youth violence,” glance at a magazine rack or turn a TV knob without confronting, “the secret life of suburban teens.” The only blessing is that Rolling Stone fear-monger Randall Sullivan hasn’t (yet) unburdened another of his fact-free histrionics anointing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold the new Everyteens.
The lesson of reporting on Columbine is pretty simple: America sports an ugly new face of adult hostility, and it doesn’t care about kids. It’s the “quality,” not the quantity, of school violence victims that sets off panic, with the paradoxical result that school murders actually are underreported. The late-1990s tactic by the media and officials to focus on demonizing suburban and small-town youth as the fright-provoking face of American savagery means that murders of poorer students and murders by adults in schools are systematically ignored. In a bizarre twist that reveals reams about official America’s true concern for young people, whether kids are more likely to get hurt or killed in schools today than in the past, or more in danger in schools than elsewhere in society, is of little importance. The alarmism surrounds the supposedly new development that victims now are white—and thus politically useful.
The National School Safety Center’s excellent tabulation of “School Associated Violent Deaths” (http://www.nssc1.org), covering the period from August 1992 through November 2003 (the latest as of this writing), reveals how the press and politicians have relentlessly manipulated school violence. In truth, there were 39 additional school murders during 1999-2001 which received practically no publicity, resulting from 35 incidents involving 37 killers in cities from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Pomona, California. What made these 35 school murders worthy of silence? They fell into two categories. Thirty involved student victims who were black, Hispanic, Asian, or of unknown race (the eight whose races were not reported attended mostly-minority schools), killed by other students or by adults. Nine involved white victims: six were adults murdered by adults, two were students murdered by adults, and one student died from a previously undiscovered aneurysm after a fistfight. And if the NSSC’s tabulation included preschools, the deliberate mowdown of two toddlers by an enraged middle-aged driver in Costa Mesa, California, would add to the school murder toll the media ignored.
In the super-charged 1999 school year when the media feverishly awaited any new school shooting, three were shrugged off. An Elgin, Illinois, 14-year-old was shot to death in his classroom in February. Not news: he was Latino and in special ed. On June 8, two girls were gunned down in front of their high school in Lynwood, California, south of Los Angeles. Not news (even to the Los Angeles Times, which ran a modest 440-word story on an inside page): they were Latinas. On November 19, a 13-year-old boy shot a 13-year-old girl to death in a Deming, New Mexico, middle school. Also Latinos, not the news editors’ kind and therefore not news.
Similarly, the Santana High School shooting in Santee, California, on March 5, 2001, involving a white 15 year-old shooting to death two other white students alleged to have bullied him, received massive press attention. Reporters absurdly depicted Santee, site of considerable racial and domestic violence, as a pristine suburb menaced only by drug-taking teens. The school superintendent suspended friends of the student shooter, who were also badgered by the press for not reporting their vague suspicions; popular students suspected of bullying unpopular kids were not similarly taken to task. In addition, gun murders of two black and one Latino student in the two months surrounding Santee’s killings were ignored. And, in a major irony that escaped much attention, a law enforcement officer training to respond to school shootings at a Texas high school accidentally shot a fellow officer to death on June 7, indicating that gunners who create danger at school are not all students.
In fact, several of the unheralded school murders (the multiple killings of white adults in Hoboken and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in lover-triangle shootings, or of Latino students in Pomona and in Lynwood) had death tolls equaling or exceeding nationally headlined killings (Pearl and Springfield involved two killings, Edinboro and West Palm Beach one, Conyers and Fort Gibson none). Why, then, did the media, politicians, and quotable experts deem white- suburban-student murders an apocalypse and white-adult, minority-student, and inner-city killings of no importance?
To ask the question is to answer it: in the crass logic of reporters and editors, things like that are “supposed to happen” to darker skinned youth. The press’s new mission was to demonstrate that school shootings proved white, suburban youth were out of control. If reporters had to ignore school killings that didn’t confirm their narrow agenda, ignore them they did.
In his December 20, 1999, Time magazine commentary on the Columbine massacre, Cornell University human development professor and Lost Boys author James Garbarino makes a startling point. Ninety percent of teenage killers he’s familiar with “conform to a pattern in which the line from bad parenting and bad environments to murder is usually clear…abuse, neglect and emotional deprivation at home…racism, poverty, the drug and gang cultures.”
But the issue is not quantity, but quality. Time and the country wanted to fixate on the 10% who, at least within the limits of psychologists’ understanding (severe limits indeed, one might argue), constitute the youthful murderers Garbarino claims “have loving parents and are not poor”—that is, who display neither of the two basic prerequisites for mayhem. These are the “KIDS Without a Conscience” gracing the cover of People. The media and politicians dote on privileged savages who validate the 1990s morality fable that unpopular national sacrifices to promote social equality aren’t necessary. They’re rich, they kill anyway! Who needs economic justice?
In December 1999, the Columbine shooters’ grim video was leaked by cops and gobbled by the press for maximum sensation. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris casually anticipated and knocked down every notion authorities advanced over the previous eight months to explain “why why why.” Their video (like Christian Slater’s teen psychopath in the 1989 movie Heathers) revealed astonishing sophistication at manipulating adult prejudices—a point not lost on rueful reporters sensationalizing it as the killers arrogantly promised they would.
There’s something for everyone. Refuting liberals who claim teenagers are impulsive children incapable of rational thought or anticipation of consequences, Klebold and Harris meticulously and patiently planned their massacre for a year, acutely predicting the results. Contradicting conservatives who claim such fanatics would shrink from their crimes if we get tough, try them as adults, and lock them up for eons or put them to death, the Colorado gunboys laugh in their faces on film before putting guns in their mouths after the massacre.
For those who claim video games made ‘em do it, a theory all the rage now and coming into vogue when Klebold and Harris made their video, the latter says to the camera: “It’s going to be like fucking Doom. Tick tick tick tick…Ha! That fucking shotgun is straight out of Doom.” That one is quoted a lot. No one in today’s “personal responsibility” climate seems inclined to blame family abuses, but just in case, Klebold throws a sop: “You made me what I am,” he railed at his extended family. “You added to the rage.” Don’t look for that one to be quoted.
The cruelty of high school socialites? “You’ve been giving us shit for years,” Klebold said to the “stuckup” kids at his school. But the massacre didn’t target only stuck-up kids, but whoever was in range. Their rampage was very much like the random, mass killings by middle-aged men recounted below. So what’s to be done? More surveillance, counseling, and intrusive psychological interventions? Littleton was one of three cities nationwide with a state-of-the-art juvenile mental health assessment center, and both gunners had been through the system; one had been psychiatrically medicated. Officers and video cameras monitoring hallways? They had those in Conyers, where a 15-year-old opened fire. More religion in schools, as House Republicans declared would do the trick? West Paducah’s was a religious school, and the shooters in Conyers and Fort Gibson were active churchgoers—one was a Boy Scout, the other sang in the choir.
The problem with deriving any “lessons” from Littleton is that the rare psychopath, by definition, does things for reasons the mass of non-psychopaths never consider. Nevertheless, books, documentaries, and “youth violence” treatises for years to come will feature highly credentialed authors selectively choosing whatever over-generalized “explanation” for the “why why why” suits their preconceived ideologies. I suggest we should pay more attention to Harris’s quiet video aside: “I can make you believe anything.” For this is all we really know about Klebold and Harris: along with Kip (Springfield) Kinkel, Michael (West Paducah) Carneal, and the handful of other school shooters, their kind is vanishingly rare among teenagers. Here is the irrefutable fact the school gunners proved: any youth can obtain hefty firepower within scant hours or days of wanting it, so if even one in 100,000 high schoolers harbored their murderous mentality, we’d have several Columbines and Jonesboros every week, not two or three a year. The most accurate conclusion is also the least satisfying to those bent on divining larger cultural “messages” from Columbine: Klebold and Harris represented Klebold and Harris, not a generation, not even alienated boys.
Now, what is preventing Rolling Stone’s Randall Sullivan and other “experts” from pronouncing such an inescapable conclusion based on the evidence—the job of an expert, after all? In all the mass media freakout, I saw only one bit of sanity: CDC violence prevention epidemiologist Jim Mercy, who told New York Times reporter Sheryl Stolberg that school shootings are “the statistical equivalent of a needle in a haystack. The reality is that schools are very safe environments for kids.”
Wait a minute, some might argue, when adults kill en masse, they get lots of bad press, too. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was deplored by the president and media for months. Stockbroker Mark Barton, who gunned down 13 and wounded 25 at an Atlanta brokerage firm in August 1999, got on the covers of national magazines.
Are youthful killers being treated unfairly, then? No—youthful killers are not being mistreated, except in the sense that their evil deeds are more likely to be featured in the press and deplored by luminaries than similar murders by adults. (Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and Kip Kinkel remain far bigger names than Mark Barton, Buford Furrow, and Larry Gene Ashbrook, middle-agers who committed similar, more recent public massacres.) The unfairness involves the fact that middle-aged killers are treated by the press and experts as crazed individuals committing isolated acts while youthful killers are treated as part of a connected pattern demonstrating today’s younger generation is uniquely barbaric. Consider recent murders in Ventura County, California, among the nation’s richest suburban havens. Its three cities of over 100,000 people are regularly cited as among the safest in the United States from violent crime. Yet in the last 36 months, three affluent, suburban Ventura grownups in their 40s blew away 10 people in multiple-victim rage shootings—six children and four adults. That’s more than the combined toll of headlined shootings by high schoolers in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Jonesboro, Arkansas—all in just one county.
Horror? The Ventura grownup shootings had that: 44-year-old man guns down screaming wife and three children on pastoral lane, 43-year-old man rakes two neighbors with bullets as one’s three-year-old shrieks in terror; 42-year-old mom blasts three boys in their beds in ritzy rural enclave. All the usual big story ingredients were there: well-off perpetrators coldly mowing down innocent children in communities where “murder just doesn’t happen,” carnages so bloody law enforcement veterans required counseling, etc. Yet none made national headlines. No CNN continuous coverage, no Ph.D.s shaking heads at society’s degeneration, no tearful presidential condolences. The only ingredient missing: the murderers were not youths.
The “post-Columbine” events proved the school shootings were not a youth, but a “dissed suburban male” phenomenon. The crucial point being missed is that Klebold, Harris, Kinkel, and other middleclass student gunmen had practically nothing in common with other kids (their isolation, in fact, was a big part of their rage), but they had a lot in common with adult middle-class mass killers. Consider the quick succession of grownup massacres in 1999, of which the following is but a partial list:
· March 18—71-year-old Walter Shell kills his attorney and a client in Johnson City, Tennessee. Shell blamed the lawyer for losses in litigating his wife’s will.
· April 15—five days before Columbine, Sergei Barbarin, also 71, sprays the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City with gunfire, killing two and wounding four before police killed him. This inexplicable slaughter followed similar gunplay by a 24-year-old man in downtown Salt Lake City on January 14 that killed one and wounded another.
· June 3—three weeks after the Conyers shootings, ex-Marine Zane Floyd, 23, opens fire in a Las Vegas, Nevada, grocery store, killing four store employees.
· June 11—Joseph Brooks, 27, guns down his former psychiatrist and a woman and wounds four at a Southfield, Michigan, clinic.
· July 8—Lawrence Michael Hensley, 37, shoots his Bible study teacher and three Bible students, girls ages 14, 16, and 17, to death and wounds a woman in suburban Sidney, Ohio, outside of Dayton. Police alleged Hensley shot the girls for rejecting sexual advances.
· July 12—Cyrano Marks, 40, described as “a gentle giant who never hurt anyone,” guns down six members of a suburban Atlanta, Georgia, family, then himself. The dead included kids ages 9, 13, 15, and 16, and three adults. An 11-year-old escaped death by hiding in a closet. The motive: apparent jealousy over the live-in mother’s rejection.
· July 29—Mark Barton, 44, murders his wife and two little girls, then kills nine and wounds 13 at two Atlanta brokerage firms where he worked as a day trader, then shoots himself to death. The 13 dead and 25 total casualties rival Columbine. Motives: apparently financial failure, impending divorce. Story wins brief front-page and magazine cover attention, then fades.
· August 15—Another frustrated white-collar man, Alan Miller, 34, guns down three at offices in Pelham, Alabama.
· August 10—White supremacist Buford Furrow Jr., 37, fatally shoots a Filipino postal worker after wounding five children in gunfire at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
· September 15—Larry Gene Ashbrook, 47, Fort Worth, shoots four teenagers and three adults to death and wounds seven more at the Wedgewood Baptist Church during a Christian music concert, then kills himself. Police found bomb-making tools in Ashbrook’s home. Ashbrook had written letters blaming bosses for his job losses and inability to get along with co-workers.
· November 1—Bryan Uyesugi, 40, shoots seven fellow employees to death at the Xerox office in Honolulu. It was Hawaii’s worst mass murder. Police found 17 firearms, including 11 handguns, five rifles, and two shotguns at Uyesugi’s house despite the fact he had been denied a firearms permit after an arrest for criminal damage at his office.
· November 3—Kevin Cruz, 30, a shipyard worker “with a history of run-ins with the law,” kills two and wounds two more, in a Seattle shooting spree.
· November 22—Cora Caro, 42, a suburban Ventura, California, physician’s wife described as “a doting mother and an active churchgoer,” shoots three sons, ages 5, 8, and 11, to death and wounded herself in what police call a staged suicide attempt in their “gated mansion on eight acres in a valley of millionaires.”
· December 4—34-year-old Sacramento father Kao Xiang, apparently distraught over a failing marriage, shoots his five kids, ages 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7, and himself, to death.
· December 30—Silvio Leyva, 36, guns down five and injures three at the ritzy Radisson Hotel in Tampa. Hotel co-workers speculate he “just snapped.”
To see how closely the motives and behaviors of the youthful school shooters resemble those of the adults who committed gun massacres, consider only the dozen most recent shootings in the last half of 1999. All involved gunners in their 30s and 40s, all of middle-class or wealthier status, 11 of them men. The toll was 90 casualties: 59 dead (including 21 children and teenagers) and 31 wounded (10 of them kids). Thus, just 25 weeks of middle-aged gunnings (in my informal, incomplete tabulation that includes only mass shootings) killed and injured far more people than three years of school shootings. Each event occurred where “such things are not supposed to happen”: professional offices, churches, Bible study groups, community centers, ritzy hotels, suburban homes, posh enclaves. A few received press attention, but the media quickly wearied of the sheer number of killings carried out by the middle-aged.
Even if we examine only the public “rage killings” by white adult men that most resemble the school shootings, the toll in the seven incidents above was 35 dead, 34 wounded. Clearly, massacres are not a “youth” phenomenon. The middle-aged mass-killer motives were strangely akin to those of the schoolboy shooters from Pearl to Columbine. The gunners felt rejected by employers, co-workers, wives, girlfriends, saw themselves as failures, harbored racism, accumulated massive gun and bomb arsenals.
Individuals, Not Harbingers
“They’re not drunk or high on drugs. They’re not racists or Satanists or addicted to violent video games, movies, or music,” began an April 9-10, 2000, New York Times series on school shooters and other “rampage killers,” entitled, “They threaten, seethe, and unhinge, then kill in quantity.” Reporters led by Ford Fessenden catalogued hundreds of rampage killings in the U.S. since 1950. They profiled 102 teenage and adult rampage murderers whose 100 multiple, public killings left 425 dead and 510 injured. As is nearly always the case when an issue is studied rather than butchered by experts’ and pundits’ anecdotal pontifications, the Times analysis uncovered major challenges to popular myths. Politicians’ and programs’ favorite culprits turned out to be trivial. Very few of the rampagers patronized violent media; practically none harbored occult or satanic interests. “Cultural influences seemed small,” the Times concluded.
However, there was “an extremely high association between violence and mental illness.” Half had been formally diagnosed with serious maladies, led by schizophrenia and depression. When it came to ignoring warning signs of catastrophe, psychiatrists, family members, and peers were equally blind. Rampage killers overwhelmingly were male (96 of 102) and white (79). They tended to be older (high proportion in 30s and 40s) than single-victim murderers. A large majority were suburban, small-town, or rural.
Their mass killings were not new-not even school massacres. Two examples in the Times sample: in 1974, Olean, New York, honor student Anthony Barbaro, 17, opened fire at his school, killing three and wounding nine. In 1979, Brenda Spencer, 16, gunned two to death and injured nine at a San Diego elementary school. (Those two mass killings by white students in the 1970s merited only inside stories in Time and Newsweek, which is why experts don’t remember them). But rampage killers of all ages, though rare, appear somewhat more plentiful today—23 per year in the 1970s and 1980s, 34 per year in the 1990s.
As noted, the FBI reports that youths under age 18 accounted for about 6% of the 50,000 murders in the U.S. in the last four years. The famous school shootings comprised one-twentieth of 1% of the murders in the United States, and half of these were at Littleton. By contrast, in a few months, over-30 men slaughtered three times more in multiple-victim shootings than all school students in four years. This raises a blunt question: do the authorities, from President Clinton to institutional and media commentators, view Cyrano Marks as a symbol of general murderousness among black men? Andrew Cunahan as a harbinger of gay male rage? Mark Barton as symbolic of suburban businessman savagery? Cora Caro as the image of the new killer soccer-mom? None I’m aware of has so labeled. In fact, most would consider those who define racial or other groups by their most brutal individuals as bigots of a particularly ugly and hostile mindset—especially if followed with proposals to inflict mass controls on the disfavored groups. It is exactly this kind of prejudicial thinking that grownups lecture teenagers to avoid.
Certainly there is no National Campaign to Prevent Middle-Aged Violence (which is a far more prevalent problem, statistically than “youth violence”). But if adults would not elevate our most murderous few as symbols of the moral disintegration of the groups we occupy, by what right do we hold up Klebold, Harris, or Kinkel as symbols of suburban youth, or of all youth?
A Murdered Child We Cared About
Then came February 29, 2000, and the next astounding demonstration of how willfully the American political-media complex just doesn’t get it. A six-year-old boy brought a gun to his elementary school in Mount Morris Township, Michigan, and shot classmate Kayla Rolland, also six, to death. Immediately, the national press charged in, as it had 19 months earlier in August 1998, when two Chicago seven-year-olds were arrested and accused of beating Ryan Harris, 11, to death, allegedly to steal her bicycle. Front pages then blared the enormity of the two boys’ crime and speculated on its effects on get tough juvenile justice legislation. Then, persuasive new evidence indicated police had framed the boys and that the real murderer was a 29-year-old rapist. Result: officials and reporters abruptly lost interest in Ryan’s killing, graphically demonstrating how little the press and politicians cared about a bludgeoned sixth grader once the killer turned out to display the wrong demography.
The Mount Morris first-grade shooter was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother to live with relatives in a crack house in a community four–fifths of whose children lived in poverty. However, it quickly became clear that the media, politicians, and interest groups were zeroing in on the easy villains—”how a six-year-old got his hands on a gun,” and media violence. The first was easy. There are 240 million guns loose in the U.S. Repeated studies have shown that even after years of intensive publicity on “kids and guns,” millions of American gun owners do not store guns safely. A March 2000 University of California study found 43% of the gun owners who have children under age 18 in their homes admitted leaving firearms in unlocked places; 14% of gun owners with kids said their unlocked guns were loaded; and we can assume even more parents who left guns lying around would also have unsecured ammunition handy. Even parents and other adults who had taken gun safety courses did not store guns safely. There must be millions of loaded firearms, and tens of millions of unloaded firearms with accessible ammunition, handy where kids can get to them. After all, most school shooters acquired guns with ease from parents, relatives, or other “legitimate” sources.
To rephrase: “How could a six-year-old NOT get his hands on a gun?” Given the quantity of guns easily available to kids, why don’t tragedies like Mount Morris’s happen every day? An even better question: what does the failure of most American gun owners to store guns properly say about the maturity of adults who possess lethal weapons? President Clinton lamented in March 2000 that “every day, 13 children die from guns in this country.” (Actually, in the latest year tabulated, 1998, the number was 10; Clinton’s “children” included 18- and 19-year-olds the president did not so label when he armed and sent them to his many wars.) And if we’re concerned about kids, where is the lament of the president and big lobbies that adults age 20 and older shoot 75 people to death every day, including most child murder victims?
The Switzerland Example
An intermittently thoughtful piece in the February 1990 American Rifleman detailed how the Swiss experience calls the easy superficialities of both gun-control and gun-rights dogmatists into question. With virtually universal household firearms possession, fascination with gun shows and target shooting, and laws that allow private citizens to acquire the most sophisticated automatic pistols, assault weaponry, and even howitzers (rocket launchers!), Swiss “gun culture” makes the United States’ look modest. Yet Switzerland reports about five fatal gun accidents, 60 total homicides (gun murders are too rare to tabulate), and gun involvement only in one-fifth of suicides (compared to three-fifths in the U.S.), making it one of the safest countries in the world.
But there are crucial nuances. While gun-rights advocates claim the safe Swiss gun culture demolishes the arguments of gun-control advocates, it in fact demolishes both sides—or affirms both sides, if you prefer. The Swiss are issued guns by the military as part of universal service for men, the guns are registered and subject to inspection, and extensive training and retraining is required. True, guns don’t kill people, people do; but even more true, Americans with guns kill far more people than people in nations which prohibit firearms ownership or which allow it only under strict controls.
Interestingly, researchers on Swiss gun culture conclude America still needs strict gun controls. The American Rifleman author cautions gun owners not to casually dismiss researchers’ argument that, “while the Swiss may be responsible enough to own even the deadliest guns, Americans are not.” Massachusetts is the U.S. state with the strictest gun controls, requiring gun registration and licensing and a host of other restrictions, and it also has the nation’s lowest gun death rate. By coincidence, Massachusetts has about the same population and per-capita income as Switzerland. In the mid–1990s, Massachusetts suffered about 150 gun suicides, 100 gun homicides, and four or five gun accidents per year. Thus, Massachusetts’ rate of gun accidents and suicides is somewhat lower, but its rate of gun homicide is five times higher, than Switzerland’s. Overall, Switzerland, awash in firearms, has the same gun death rate as America’s safest, most gun-controlled state; if one eliminates suicide and considers only violence inflicted on others, Massachusetts’ citizens are several times deadlier with guns than the Swiss. Other American states have even higher gun tolls than Massachusetts. This would indicate that even with strict gun controls, Americans would remain more prone to homicide than the Swiss.
The experience of the more disciplined Swiss society cannot be casually transferred to the U.S. Only a small fraction of American adults (most certainly not including me) are mature enough to shoulder the day-to-day responsibility of owning a firearm, storing it carefully, and being rigorously trained in its use. Further, the tacit acceptance (how else can their silence be interpreted?) by American leaders, the media, gun sellers, society in general, and even gun-control lobbies of the endless series of adult-perpetrated gun carnages that kill many times more people (including children) than kids do delineates a society in which “legitimate adult gun ownership” is a contradiction in terms. This problem is further emphasized by the fanatic resistance to even modest gun storage and safety regulations. Obsession with reforming or “protecting” youths has become the way not to talk about larger issues. If Americans want the greater social cohesiveness of countries which safely manage dangerous items such as firearms, investment in Swiss and European style universal social insurance programs that prevent extreme poverty (and which prevent poverty among the U.S. elderly) is a major step. The prevalence of adult gun killings should be deplored by gun control groups with the same angry fervor applied to those by children and teenagers. Instead of indulging superficialities, America’s gun debate needs to initiate discussion of the tough measures of peer societies.
As the press reverberated with the Mount Morris first-grade shooting, Ronald Taylor, 39, killed three and wounded two the next day in a gun rampage at his apartment building and two fast-food restaurants in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb of Wilkinsburg. As in the Michigan first grade killing, the shooter was black, the victims white, the neighborhood shabby. The middle-ager, who had no prior criminal record, had argued with maintenance workers at his apartment and also made anti-white and anti-Jewish remarks. “He must have what I call the American flu,” said Taylor’s neighbor Eric Nesbit, one of the year’s few sensible remarks on mass shootings.
On March 4, 2000, five days after the Michigan six-year-old’s shooting, another angry white 30-ager, Tommy Lynn Sells, confessed to 13 murders in seven states. Texas state police, believing his confessions due to his detailed knowledge of unreported crime scene details, called Sells a “killing machine” who “gave no explanation” for his savageries. The 35-year-old had been jailed on charges of murder and attempted murder for slashing the throats of two Del Rio, Texas, girls, ages 10 and 13. The older girl died, but the younger, Krystal Surles, badly wounded, staggered to a neighbor’s house and described her assailant closely enough to lead to his capture three days later. The vast majority of Americans never heard of how Krystal’s determination saved countless lives. Child victims who serve no powerful interest group’s agenda are treated as trivial.
Then on March 7, 8, and 19, 2000, came more over–30 rifle slaughter. A Memphis fireman, Fred Williams, 41, apparently anguished over a girlfriend’s rejection, murdered her and ambushed co-workers responding to a fire he set to cover the killing; four died. In Baltimore, Joseph Palczynski, 31, also conjugally distressed, shot four to death and wounded two (including a two-year-old) on March 7 and, 10 days later, took three hostages (including former girlfriend and 12-year-old son) before being killed by police.
The national media reported these stories for a day or two, but these were not the kind of rage killings reporters wanted. In contrast, the first anniversary of the Columbine High shooting was coming up on April 20, 2000, and the press rang with fears of an encore. Curt Lavallo, executive director of the burgeoning National Association of School Resource Officers (a school police service whose numbers doubled to 5,500 in the past year even as school violence levels declined) waxed inflammatory: “The date has them worried about a lot of copycats or kids who may try to send a very, very strong message. It’s been absolutely clear in the tragedies we’ve seen on school campuses that these incidents can occur at any time, in any school.” Lavallo, like the prison lobby, represents a disturbing, growing force in American society, one that profits from high rates of crime and violence and continuously scaring the public therewith.
Open fire, disgruntled white kid, the national media and authorities all but shouted, and we’ll make sure eternal fame is yours. What happened? Nothing. Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones fearmongers please note: the fact that none of the tens of millions of students, even the supposed legions of alienated hair-trigger boys, blasted up a school to create their own memorial shows that few if any kids idolized Klebold and Harris. A most newsworthy point that made no news.
Instead, five more older, well-off white men flipped. Two days before the Columbine anniversary so feverishly hyped in the press, 56-year-old Kenneth Miller Sr. toted several guns into the Towers senior citizens’ condo at Lincoln Park, Michigan, and fired 15 shots from a .22 caliber rifle, killing three women. His son said Miller, a country music singer with “no history of violence,” was upset over sexual harassment allegations by several women in the Towers, where he lived. On April 20, another senior complex was the scene of slaughter when Richard Glassel, 61, opened fire in a crowd of 50 attending a meeting of the Ventana Lakes, Arizona, retirement community board, killing two and wounding three before one of his three loaded guns jammed. Glassel was known as a “hothead” who redecorated his dwelling with a chainsaw after other homeowners took legal action against him. Later that day, Robert Lee Yates, a 47-year-old National Guard helicopter pilot and suburban, married father of five, was arrested by Seattle police and accused of murdering at least a dozen prostitutes, including a 16-year-old he was charged with shooting. Then, Richard Braumhammers, a 34-year-old lawyer, was arrested for shooting five to death and wounding one, including two Asians, two blacks, and one Jew, in an apparent hate rampage in suburban McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, on April 27. On April 29, Michael Rice, 33, of suburban Mt. Clemens, Michigan, apparently distraught that his wife was leaving him, shot her, two other people, and himself.
Granddads? Country musicians? Helicopter pilots? Firemen? The bedrock of America? Where would it end? Body count for over-30 rage gunners in just 60 days since the Michigan grade school shooting: 26 dead, nine wounded, confessions or accusations of 25 past murders and multiple maimings. The press ran the stories briefly; but it was looking for younger fish to fry.
At this point, this volume’s far-from-complete catalog of middle-aged gun slaughter will close. It is mind-numbingly endless, as the reader can attest. For exactly that reason, it is the true face of American gun violence. Ninety percent of America’s firearms killing is perpetrated by adults 20 and older, causing 30,000 deaths per year during the 1990s. It is swept aside (President Clinton was still harping on the six-year-old in his showy public squabble with the National Rifle Association) because it is too common, too routine, and therefore too unsettling for our press, our political system, and our institutions—even the youth lobbies—to confront.
However, April 24, 2000, brought a shooting politicians could get interested in—sort of. A 16-year-old Washington, DC, youth shot into a group of kids, wounding seven, one critically. The accused shooter and victims were black, so this was not the kind of “kids killing kids” the press or politicians care much about. Had it taken place in a poorer neighborhood, it would have received only brief press attention; a child or teen is shot to death every week in Washington, and I can’t recall the last one that made national news. However, this shooting occurred at the National Zoo, a major tourist attraction in a posh section of the city. It was a safe opportunity for politicians who had been silent about the scores of kids and adults murdered in dozens of mass shootings by graying grownups to discharge their agendas without venturing into the thorny area of what to do about “adults and guns.”
Immediately after the Washington shooting, the press speculated on how this latest “high profile” juvenile killing would affect juvenile justice and gun legislation. Politicians unleashed their “kids and guns” one-liners. “We really have to have mandatory child safety trigger locks, and photo license IDs for the purchase of new handguns,” said Vice President Al Gore. Said Washington Mayor Anthony Williams: “We’ve got to get kids and guns separated from one another, they don’t go together.”
Perfect examples of American leaders’ dangerous penchant for grandstanding. Who goes together with guns is a matter of individuality, not age, as the middle-aged rampages which constitute the typical face of America’s mass gun slaughter show. If anything should have alerted experts and leaders to the fact that the school shootings were in no way a “youth,” but a much larger, American phenomenon, the string of well-off middle-agers blowing away dozens in a matter of weeks in 1999 should have done it. It did not.
With the zeal to exploit tragedy that helps make the United States such an appallingly high-risk society, American chieftains and institutions ignored the adult carnage and pushed ahead with pretensions that “youth gun violence” remained the crisis. Crusades by the National Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence, Handgun Control, Inc., and the Children’s Defense Fund to “get guns out of the hands of children” had but one motive: to mold the gun and violence issues into risk-free ones amenable to political and institutional goals. The “kids and guns” campaign reveals how Americans’ focus on blaming and controlling powerless demographic groups (in this case, children and adolescents) hampers us addressing violence and other serious issues as effectively as other Western nations that focus on preventing dangerous behaviors.
In October 1999, the Children’s Defense Fund’s report, Children and Guns, and web postings by Handgun Control, Inc., demonstrated that anti-gun lobbies can be every bit as inflammatory and deceptive in profiteering from fear of “youth violence” as the National Rifle Association is in exploiting fear of crime. That America’s high level of gun violence separates us from every other Western society makes the CDF’s put-politics-first report all the more inexcusable. The chief question is whether the CDF and other “kids and guns” lobbies are actively endangering kids, just as the NRA does, with “put agendas first” politics.
Children and Guns is particularly disturbing because it so casually omits the crucial contexts of gun violence by youths and instead employs statistical duplicity to advance schemes its own data show are woefully ineffective. The report notes that 37,000 “children” under age 20 (again, 18- and 19-year-olds are designated “children” or “adults,” as convenient) died from gunfire from 1990 through 1997. This tragedy was compounded by the CDF’s failure to point out forcefully that youth shootings are inevitable in a nation in which 250,000 adults 20 and older died from guns during the same period—or that American adults shoot many times more kids than adults shoot in all other Western nations put together. “Children” and “adults” may be separable in Washington-lobby theory, but in real life, their fates are tightly intertwined.
My calculations using the same National Center for Health Statistics data the CDF cites show the state-by-state correlation between the rate of gun death among children and among adults for the 1990s is a staggering 0.88 (on a maximum scale of 1.00). In simple terms, in states where lots of adults kill or die from guns, lots of kids kill or die from guns; in states where adults are safer, kids are safer. This near one-to-one correlation indicates that focusing on “kids and guns” is useless; adult gun tragedy and youth gun tragedy are just two names for the same problem.
The correlation between adult gun-death rates and youth gun-death rates is one of the highest I’ve seen in behavior science. It is thousands of times more significant than the widely touted, but weak correlations between youths’ patronage of violent media and real-life violence, which typically average around 0.10. It means that those who are concerned about America’s gun carnage should stop diverting attention with side issues like media and video game violence, or politically-safe fantasies that we can allow adults to have guns but somehow keep them away from teenagers, and get to the real issue: Americans adults handle guns with monumental carelessness and malintent, and “kids and guns” is just the junior version of “adults and guns.”
In that regard, the CDF makes two revolutionary admissions: “children are more likely to be killed by adults than (by) other children” and “schools are one of the safest places for our children. Children are far more likely to be killed after school, in their own homes, or in their friends’ homes than in school.” These insights should push the debate toward focusing on guns, not the age of the shooter. But, in spite of this—or perhaps because they point to revolutionary shakeup—these vital truths are ignored in the remainder of CDF’s report, as in the gun squabble generally.
The number-one fact neither side in the gun debate wants to talk about: adults shoot kids. The FBI’s tabulation of 6,240 homicides in 2001 for which the age of killer and victim are known repeated the typical pattern: just 113 (2%) involved a juvenile under age 18 killing another juvenile. However, 610 (10%) involved an adult killing a juvenile. Thus, five times more juvenile victims were killed by adults than were killed by other juveniles. Nor do juveniles reciprocate by killing adults—252 homicides (4% of the total) involved a person under 18 killing a person 18 or older. The remaining 5,265 murders (84%) involved adults killing adults.
A more detailed, two-year tabulation of 1,856 homicides in California in 1997-98 for which the age of the victim and offender are known, which I obtained from the state’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center, reveals the following:
Murders BY Juveniles:
· 66 (3.6%) involved a murderer under age 18 killing a victim under age 18
· 51 (2.7%) involved a murderer under age 18 killing a victim aged 18-24
· 47 (2.5%) involved a murderer under age 18 killing a victim aged 25 or older
· 164 (8.8%) involved a murderer under age 18 killing anyone
Murders OF Juveniles:
· 66 (3.6%) involved a murderer under age 18 killing a victim under age 18
· 113 (6.1%) involved a murderer aged 18-24 killing a victim under age 18
· 87 (4.7%) involved a murderer aged 25 or older killing a victim under age 18
· 266 (14.3%) involved a murderer of any age killing a victim under age 18
The remaining 77% of murders involved adults killing adults.
Juveniles accounted for only 9% of these murders in California. A youth was nearly twice as likely to be killed by an adult age 25 or older (4.7% of the state’s murders) than the other way around (2.5%). In fact, a youth was more likely to be murdered by an adult over age 25 than by another juvenile! And it goes the other way, though in much smaller numbers: juveniles kill adults. More than half the murders by a killer under age 18 involves a victim over that age.
In March 2000, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention refined the figures even more. Of the 38,000 children and youths murdered from 1980 through 1997, three–fourths were killed by adults 18 and older. Of the one in four juveniles killed by another juvenile, one–sixth involved an adult co-offender. Thus, an adult was involved in 78% of the murders of children and youths, a fact of vital importance to the “kids and guns” discussion.
However, these crucial, distressing points were buried in the CDF’s sensational press statements and poster campaign—the images most people will see. Its posters, depicting Columbine High’s shooting aftermath and steely-eyed youths aiming handguns, screamed, “Remember when the only thing kids were afraid of at school was a pop quiz?” What clichéd cowardice.
Clearly, the CDF isn’t up to confronting the adult violence FBI and Department of Justice figures show kills 95% of murdered children and 70% of murdered teens. Four of the five sidebar anecdotes in the CDF report depict children shooting children. The report lists the school shootings as “simply the latest wake-up calls for what has been happening every day in America for a very long time.” It is troubling that the same child advocates who ringingly deplore “children killing children,” “youth violence,” and “guns in school” gingerly tiptoe around the fact that adults murder more kids every three days than student killers do in a year.
The CDF’s fear-based press and poster campaign picturing youths as coldly evil gunners runs the risk of backfiring. Research indicates that both youths and adults who acquire guns out of fear (rather then for hunting or target shooting) are more likely to keep loaded guns handy, carry them, and use them. The CDF narrative feeds this generalized fear by misrepresenting youth gun violence as a common phenomenon that “knows no boundaries.”
The report claims that “gun violence is an equal opportunity disaster” because most victims are white. But this is true only if Latinos are classified as “white.” In fact, youths of color (including Latinos), 36% of the youth population, suffer 65% of youthful gun deaths. Further down, the CDF report admits the firearms death rate for young blacks is five times higher than for young whites. This is galaxies from “equal opportunity.” Far from “knowing no boundaries,” just 10% of California’s zip codes accounted for five-sixths of the gun deaths and 90% of the gun murders among persons under age 20 in 1997, while four–fifths of California’s zip codes had zero gun deaths among children and youths. National and California figures (see Table 11) show two startling facts that merit careful consideration in the homily-happy gun debate:
White Anglo teenagers are considerably safer from gun fatality than Anglo adults, but Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native teenagers are far more at risk from guns than adults of their races. The gun risk to Anglo teens declined sharply in the last 10 to 15 years while the danger to youths of color skyrocketed.
Ignoring these enormous realities, the CDF’s posters depict only white youthful gun-brandishers and school violence scenes. Why? If black youths are many times more victimized by guns, shouldn’t posters show black kids icily sighting down the barrel? But that approach would draw justifiable outrage that the CDF was stigmatizing black males as killers (as a Time magazine cover depicting a black man over a violence headline did) in a society already too eager to believe that. Would that a group called the “Children’s Defense Fund” been similarly sensitive to not stigmatizing youths as killers.
As will be shown, the true villain is not race or age. Both within and between racial and ethnic groups, poverty is strongly connected to gun demise (the correlation between child poverty rates and child gun death rates by state is 0.58, also very high). The CDF, one of the few groups to raise the issue of child poverty in the 1990s, seems to soft-pedal that issue today. It fails to point out that reducing poverty is the single biggest step toward reducing gun violence both by adults and youths.
Instead, all of the CDF’s “action steps” concern restricting and reforming youth behavior. Most of the CDF’s recommendations focus on criminalizing acquisition and ownership of guns by persons under age 21, engaging various educational and control schemes to keep kids from getting guns, and preserving “legitimate” adult rights to have guns for “sporting purpose.” The CDF resorts to crude statistical deceptions to make these unworkable measures appear effective in saving kids’ lives when, in fact, the evidence shows they’re more likely to accompany more juvenile gun deaths (see Chapter 4). Such “kiddy gun control” strategies don’t work because they are founded in deadly flaws: youthful gun killings closely track those of grownups around them, and society can’t expect youths who live in situations where gun dangers are most acute to obey laws that disarm the young but which allow adults to have the guns to shoot them—especially when that same society collectively shrugs when adults kill kids.
“Bowling for Columbine”: The Left also Misframes Gun Quandary
Michael Moore, a Ralph Nader backer of Stupid White Men fame, released Bowling for Columbine in November 2002. The film combines humor, colorful interviews, indignant arraignments of corporations and right-wing gun nuts, and favorable audience reception. It also raises troubling question as to why progressive thinking on gun violence issue remains so confused.
Moore begins with the right question--why do Americans kill each other with guns at rates staggeringly higher than any other affluent society? He then invites us to dissect the issue logically. Popular hokum masquerading as explanation doesn’t cut it.
Is it America’s violent history? No. Germany, the UK, Japan, and other Western nations with minuscule gun-murder rates have bloody histories as well.
Violent games and movies? No. Other rich nations sop up blood-soaked entertainment.
Alienated kids? No shortage of those in less homicidal cultures.
Poverty? No, Moore says, confusing unemployment with poverty. Canadian and UK unemployment rates are higher than the US’s.
America’s guns? No. Canadians own plenty of guns and can buy bullets by the truckload.
Racial diversity? No, Moore says; Canada is also multiethnic.
But Moore’s statistics are absurdly misleading. The U.S. is far more gun-infested (three times more guns, and eight times more handguns, per person than Canada), impoverished (poverty rates two to five times higher than Canada’s, especially for extreme and concentrated poverty) and diverse (blacks and Hispanics comprise 26% of the U.S. population compared to 2% of Canada’s, most of whose minorities are more affluent Asians with low murder rates). Moore’s level of basic factuality barely tops “Lyin’ King” Rush Limbaugh’s.
What is this movie trying to say? On one level, complete nonsense. Moore presents white people’s fear of blacks and Hispanics, and consequent orgy of suburban gun-buying, as the cause of gun violence. He interviews the Flint, Michigan, District Attorney, who claims with a straight face that inner-city gun violence is not the problem; the problem is white suburban teens with guns. Moore lets him get away with reinforcing this liberal copout that both evades uncomfortable socioeconomic realities and reveals the extent to which white, upper-class politicians only get concerned when white people die.
Moore and the DA forgot to consult Flint area vital statistics, which show 25 times more black inner-city teens than white suburban teens murdered by gunfire. Can’t get those in power concerned about that. Moore’s film follows the standard media rule: Gun killings are only important when they have white victims. Columbine’s school gun massacre is chosen as the focus not because it is a common or watershed event (gun massacres are common in America, but white school shootings are extremely rare), but because its victims were suburban.
Commenting on this conundrum, Moore contradicts himself again with a bizarrely racist comment. “Ninety percent of the guns in this country are bought out in the white suburbs where you don’t need them because there’s virtually no crime,” he told Phil Donahue (MSBNBC, October 28, 2002). “And as the prosecutor says in the film, these guns then are stolen from the white communities and end up back in the inner city, creating all this violence.” Moore claims the problem is that low-crime white people let guns get into the hands of violent black people? Imagine the liberal outrage if Rush Limbaugh said that!
Having told fawning Donahue the suburbs have “virtually no crime,” Moore reverses himself yet again, telling fawning Oprah (ABC, 11/8/02) that the result of all the suburban gun-buying is that “the majority of murders” are “between white people.” Not even nearly. The latest, 2000 figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show that of 10,801 gun homicides in the U.S., 2,900 (a little more than one-fourth) involved whites; seven in 10 involved blacks and Latinos.
While demanding that conservative gun-rights groups and corporations honestly soul-search their self-serving illogic, Moore walks away from points that are difficult for liberals and leftists. Blacks, 12% of the population, suffer 52% of the nation’s gun homicide deaths--a rate 11 times higher than whites’. Nine in 10 murdered blacks are shot by other blacks, not by whites.
Moore’s orgy of self-contradiction concerns a political problem facing liberals in general: blacks and Hispanics really do commit and suffer gun violence at far higher levels than do more affluent whites. Further, it is not whites shooting minorities but, as Tupac Shakur lamented, “It’s my own kind doing all the killing here.” Poorer whites also have high gun murder rates; one’s odds of dying by gunfire rise sharply in almost perfect syncopation with one’s poverty level. Instead of confronting these stark realities, Moore trivializes black and Hispanic gun violence as figments of white paranoia.
Is racism justified, then? Are whites right to arm themselves in fear of poorer gun-toters? No, as Moore’s walking tour of south-central Los Angeles to counter media fear-mongering about black killers symbolically demonstrates. Of course L.A., even its most supposedly dangerous neighborhoods, is safer for whites than they believe. Nearly all of the relatively small number of murdered whites (85 murder victims in 2,002, in L.A.’s white population of 3 million) were slain by their own relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances.
Meanwhile, LA’s scourge of black gun homicide (357 murder victims in a population of 900,000) is 14 times that of whites, and 100 times higher in South-central than among LA’s suburban whites. Moore not only fails to mention this awful fact, but--in a film supposedly concerned with gun violence--he jokes about police responding to a gun incident that occurs right on the street where he is filming. Still, American whites, hardly poor as a group, suffer gun murder levels 2.5 times higher than Canadian citizens. What is America’s problem? (We might as well blame bowling, Moore says. The Columbine student gunboys rolled a few frames before shooting up their school.)
Again and again, Moore wrecks his message with grandstanding. He confronts Kmart managers with Columbine students seeking to return store merchandise, the bullets lodged in their bodies. He wins a store promise to phase out ammunition sales. Liberals cheer. So what? Wal-Marts in peaceable Canada sell bullets by the ton, as Moore himself demonstrated.
Moore badgers impresario Dick Clark for owning restaurants that hire welfare-to-work program recipients at low wage. More audience applause, but why? Moore earlier claimed poverty and unemployment don’t cause American’s gun carnage. And why hound an ignorant celebrity when he could have gotten better answers by calling out Michigan’s welfare director?
Later, Moore interrogates National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston over gun proliferation. Enthusiastic audience hosannas, but to what purpose? Moore admits Canadians also own lots of guns but don’t perpetrate our level of slaughter. And if he wanted answers, the NRA’s legislative director would be the one to grill.
Moore includes a lengthy roster of America’s use of military violence. What is his point? He admits gun-free European nations have similarly bloody records. Is “Bowling” an incisive documentary, or just crowd-pleasers staged for liberals?
Moore’s disingenuous confusion hijacks “Bowling” completely when he highlights the murder of the white 6 year-old Michigan girl by a first-grade black boy (see above). Moore assigns blame to the poverty of the shooter’s mother caused by (a) auto industry plant shutdowns that created chronic unemployment, and (b) Michigan’s harsh welfare-to-work mandate that forced the mother to work long hours at low-paying jobs, resulting in time away from mothering and eviction from their home. But Moore earlier dismissed unemployment and poverty as factors causing American gun violence--a standard leftist subterfuge that completely undermines his best point.
However, “Bowling” does reveal two uniquely American traits that may explain our gun carnage: Americans fear each other intensely and are indifferent to our fellow citizens’ well being. Those directly affected by a gun tragedy are the only ones who care about it. Others are detached, motivated by political opportunism, media ratings, and commercial interest. Moore’s otherwise pointless interview with Heston accuses him mainly of insensitivity: the NRA staged rallies in Colorado and Michigan following local gun tragedies. Was bad manners really the sin?
Perhaps so. American’s callousness to fellow citizens’ suffering, revealed countless times in and by “Bowling,” is a key point. Canadians seem concerned about the welfare of other Canadians and willing to translate that empathy into generous social programs and trusting attitudes that don’t hold their fellow citizens in poverty and suspicion. Americans fear and suspect other Americans. We reject common responsibility out of the assumption that our own countrymen would freeload. We buy guns for protection from each other and wind up shooting the people around us in vastly outsized numbers.
But why are Americans, inhabitants of the same country with shared interests, so extraordinarily indifferent and fearful toward one another? This callousness is shown in Michigan’s welfare system, NRA rallying at tragedy sites, the phony press and politician exploitation of firearms murders, and the Flint District Attorney’s indifference to inner city gun violence. Bowling demonstrates the extent to which Americans obsess over trivial symbols and rigid ideologies to evade fundamental issues of state-generated inequality and the violence it engenders—and for getting such a message across in today’s hyper-patriotic climate, Moore has pulled off quite an achievement.
Report from the Gundown State
In November 1999, I prepared a report for the California Attorney General’s Juvenile Gun Violence Prevention Advisory Committee on the trends, levels, and factors in “youth gun violence.” Contrary to expectations, I found that even in a state with an enormous gun toll (43,000 killed from 1990 through 1999), the vast majority of adolescents are not in substantial danger of death by firearms, nor are they in more danger than adolescents of past decades. California’s “kids and guns” problem is highly concentrated and appears to result from “non-youth” forces, not from teenage behaviors. A brief summary of this report follows.
Race, gender, location . Nearly all of California’s teenage-caused gun fatality, and gun fatality increase, occurred from a temporary surge in homicide among Latino, black, and Asian males in large urban counties with high youth poverty rates. In fact, fewer than 100 of the state’s thousands of zip codes account for more than half of all teenage firearms deaths. Further, most homicide deaths among teenagers appear inflicted by adults, not by other teenagers.
In recent decades, teenage gun fatalities have remained low and have declined or remained constant among the following population groups: younger teens ages 10-14, female teens, white (non-Latino) teens, teens in wealthier counties such as Ventura and San Mateo, and deaths by accident, suicide, and undetermined intent. For these groups, gun death rates are minimal and, where homicide is the primary cause, tend to be shot by persons outside their group. From 1985 to 2000, gun death rates among white teens declined by 48% for boys and by 72% for girls.
As poverty rates increase nine–fold from the richest white youths to the poorest youths of color, murder rates jump 700%, gun death rates triple, and gun homicides leap nine-fold. Middle-income white and nonwhite youth are in between (Table 10b). While the public and policy makers are understandably horrified by school shootings, it appears that in California (and, most likely, the nation as a whole), both murder arrest and firearms mortality rates among white (non-Latino) teenagers plummeted to their lowest levels in two to three decades in 1997, and fell further through 2001.
Further, in the last 10 to 15 years, gun suicide rates have converged among California teens (white-youth rates have declined and black-youth rates are stable, while rates for Latino and Asian youths have risen). However, homicide rates have diverged (declining for white youths, rising and then falling for Latino, black, and Asian youth). Further, research indicates teen firearms suicide rates in past decades are artificially low due to misclassification as “accidents;” a sharp “decline in accidents” coincided with the “increase in suicides.” These trends toward greater safety among white teenagers are reflected in the latest (1995-99) figures (Table 11). Latino, black, Asian, and Native 15-19-year-olds have gun death rates considerably higher than adults of their respective groups, but white 15-19-year-olds display the lowest rate of gun mortality of any white age group except younger teens and children—lower than black 50-agers.
The most salient cause of what we call “youth gun violence” is “adult gun violence,” and its antecedent in poverty. In California’s 16 most populous counties (populations exceeding 500,000) during the 1990s, rates of teenage gun fatality vary by 650% (from 3 per 100,000 youths in Ventura County to 22 in neighboring Los Angeles). Variations within races are equally dramatic. For example, white teens in San Bernardino are four times more likely to die by guns than white teens in Ventura, and Asian youths in Sacramento are seven times more at risk than Asian youths in Santa Clara (San Jose). The wide variations in teenage gun death rates closely track variations in rates of adult gun death. In turn, rates of child, youth, and adult gun casualty are closely related to poverty, which is not surprising since poverty is a strong predictor of homicide. The correlation between teenage gun fatality and youth poverty rates for California’s major counties in 1995-99 is 0.75; for all childhood gun deaths and injuries and youth poverty rates, even higher (0.82). Taken together, adult gun death rates and youth poverty rates explain more than
Implications. The complex patterns of gun death in California suggest caution about popular solutions. Major efforts to “get guns out of the hands of kids” are problematic in a state where some 30 million guns are privately owned, as well as inefficient given that the large majority of youth who have access to guns are not at risk from them. Efforts to reduce or prevent gun acquisition by persons of all ages who are unsuited to have them (surveys showing widespread, careless gun storage and handling by adults suggest that most people are unsuited) through laws and strict training requirements are also beneficial. An age-integrated “California firearms violence and prevention campaign” would be preferable to one which focuses only on “juveniles.” Other than in the artificial world of political convenience, there seems to be no material difference between youths and the adults around them when it comes to firearms tragedy.