What Makes Children Choose to Use Guns?


"Why is it that with all we have as a nation, some of our children are so eager to kill each other?" asks Joella Burgoon, executive director of the Gun Safety Institute in Cleveland.

One reason, according to a recent study by the institute of 1,164 third- through 12th-graders, is that many children don't understand the distinction between being assertive in life and being aggressive toward people.

"The kids are telling us that what society is teaching them is that the most aggressive person is always the winner," says Ms. Burgoon, "and the ultimate aggression is the handgun."

The study was aimed at determining "what needs, goals, beliefs, and emotions are involved in the decision to carry a gun or behave aggressively."

It identified four kinds of attitudes that make youths "prone" to gun use: Guns and the people who use them are exciting; guns provide both safety and power; physical aggression is acceptable or comfortable behavior; and if offended or shamed, one's pride can only be recovered by violent aggression. The study also found a dramatic and somewhat puzzling increase in violence-prone attitudes between the fifth and sixth grades.

Among the children in the study, 50 percent had a family member who had been shot, and 5 percent had been shot themselves. Some 87 percent knew someone who had a gun.

After designing a two-week curriculum to respond directly to those "gun-proneness" factors and trying it in Cleveland schools, the institute found through an evaluation that little change in attitudes took place, even though teachers praised the program.

"We discovered we were not speaking to the kids well enough where they were, and even after great discussions, our point wasn't being made," says Ms. Burgoon. "Also, the more aggressive kids tended to shut down the less aggressive kids."

The curriculum, "Solutions Without Guns," is being redesigned to last a full semester and so that each lesson plan will have a clearly defined objective "with a finish to the discussions" and more explicitness about the interpersonal skills being taught. The Understanding Kids' Motivation

revised curriculum will be used in fifth and sixth grade classes in 16 Cleveland schools beginning in February 1997.

"It taught us how little we all know about the way kids think," Burgoon says, regarding the first two-week effort. "We treated [guns and violence] like all the other things you teach them." But that's not a sufficient approach, she adds, "because there is a society out there that is teaching them a whole bunch of other things ... that are intimately intertwined with their sense of self and being somebody in their world."

As violence among youths has risen, many schools and organizations across the US have launched similar programs and curricula in recent years to try to teach a different reality about handguns and to change attitudes toward gun use.

Handgun Control Inc. the nation's largest gun-control lobbying organization, based in Washington, D.C., created the first "antigun" school curriculum for all ages called STAR (Straight Talk About Risks). "The program is used to give kids an opportunity to practice skills that get them out of situations where guns might be present," says Holly Richardson, a spokeswoman for STAR. While it is not a conflict-resolution program, it teaches youths to express their feelings and differences without resorting to guns. Some 80 school districts around the country use the program. "We are having trouble keeping up with requests," Ms. Richardson says. In the first two years of the program in Miami, the school district reported a one-third drop in gun injuries and deaths.

Hands Without Guns, a national organization that links with existing community groups, brings youths together to promote nonviolent and productive efforts already under way in communities. It also creates "spin-off" efforts to help launch new projects.

In Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., youth workshops create positive TV spots about youths, conduct toy-gun turn-ins (450 toy guns in Boston were exchanged for books and other toys) and learn-ins, and support a variety of community and arts programs. The program is being evaluated by Harvard School of Public Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin to determine the impact on young people's attitudes.

In Seattle, Mothers Against Violence in America has for the past two years offered SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere), a program in which students set up violence awareness chapters in their schools.

Each school focuses on an aspect of violence, such as handguns, dating violence, or gang violence, and creates a program of prevention efforts. The program has grown rapidly, but has not yet had an overall evaluation.

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