Save the Children (and the Adults)

THE story recently made page B-4 of the New York Times: "Officer Shot, Boy Held, But Little Notice Paid." It seems that 15-year-old Rasheem Smith of Brooklyn, days after policeman David Pitchon broke up a fight he was in, climbed a roof above where the officer walked his beat, aimed a pistol at Mr. Pitchon, and tried "his level best to kill him."

Mr. Smith failed - though the bullet hit and shattered the officer's ankle. The act brought to mind the news account of Henry "Little Man" James, who recently displayed a similar serenely minimalist sense of life as he cruised the streets of Washington. Mr. James told friends he "felt like killing someone" and at the next stoplight did so - shot a woman from the suburbs as she sat in her car.

What bothers anyone interested in the tie between thought and behavior is the maddening casualness of these acts. Violence is hardly new among urban youth. But readily available guns take matters to a new low.

These days the threshold for violence seems in retreat. What used to be an argument can now be a shootout. A boy is shot for cutting in line. Arguments over a girlfriend, or a look, or a TV program, end with bullets. Even police aren't off limits.

This has gone beyond a few instances of cranks; it is becoming an ugly social pattern. Streets in some areas are run by virtual children in a "Lord of the Flies" scenario. Nor is the problem always confined to drug infested urban areas; the problem of "gun play" is moving to the suburbs.

The cheapening of life and the grotesque abstraction from reality breeding among some youths has no quick-fix solution. An entire mentality must change, at the roots. Many offenders are children of children; they live in one- or no-parent homes; they have grown to hate authority of any kind.

Changing such a rooted problem takes time. In the meantime, one short-term answer is obvious: gun control. Outlaw assault rifles such as the MAC-10, TEC-9, and Uzi; restrict licenses; make certain city zones "gun free." Our police deserve it; to ignore their plight is, frankly, un-American.

We await the presidential candidate who will speak the truth on this issue.

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