Contemplating Littleton

Parents are the last line of defense against cultural desensitization

After a tragic local shooting incident, one of the columnists on the newspaper I currently edit went out the other day to buy a gun. He doesn't need a gun, but he wanted to find out how easy it would be to buy one.

It took him just 11 minutes, and no trouble, to buy a .22-caliber derringer with no identifying marks except for "Italy" printed on the barrel. He got it from a local pawnbroker after filling out a couple of forms declaring that he was not mentally ill, a fugitive from justice, or the object of any restraining orders. As he said, he's taken longer to buy hamburgers.

Then he checked a gun show at the local convention center. There a friendly exhibitor said he could buy a .44-caliber handgun lying on the table in front of him for $250 and a handshake. No forms. No phone calls to any government agency. He was a private individual so it was perfectly legal.

In the wake of the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., there is public dismay at the extent to which American society is awash in firearms. Some state legislatures are looking at tougher gun-control measures. President Clinton wants Congress to enact tougher federal laws that would curb assault weapons and require stricter background checks of people who buy explosives.

All this is to the good, but we should not delude ourselves that such measures alone will prevent determined killers from acquiring weapons. As the experience of my columnist proves, you can pretty well buy a gun on any street corner.

In the aftermath of Littleton, there has also been discussion in individual communities across the country about additional guards in schools, and metal detectors, and other safeguards. These are practical measures that some schools may choose to take, and discussion of them is probably useful.

But the real lesson from Littleton is that we must dig much deeper and be much more contemplative if we are to approach a healing and lasting solution to the problem of teenage violence that now has exploded so dramatically into the national consciousness.

The schools, of course, have an important role. Good teachers should identify the misfits, the marginalized students, the potential trouble-makers before they become actual troublemakers. And it should start early.

I know an elementary school principal who has weekly lunches with different groups of her charges to the point where she is knowledgeable about each and every one of them. It is not difficult to spot those with problems who need special care and love.

But all the new gun-control laws, and additional security measures at schools, and heightened teacher vigilance, are simply Band-Aids unless a child has a strong family background, and quality parenting in a prayerful home.

On a train journey last week from New York to Boston, I sat across from a father and his son, who was probably around 10 years old. For more than four hours, the little boy played a hand-held video game while the father read a book. The little boy seemed well-behaved. The father, I'm sure, was kindly. But could there not have been some communication between them? What an opportunity lost.

However Hollywood moguls may try to rationalize their "art," children today are being reared in an atmosphere of violent entertainment. No evening goes by on television without someone being brutally killed on the screen. The violence extends to videos, to cartoons, to movies, to comic books. Now there is the Internet, where children may be exposed to everything from pornography to bombmaking.

Parents need to help their children navigate through this torrent of negative and harmful content.

I got a moving letter a day or so ago from a seventh-grade teacher who wrote: "Not until every individual takes personal responsibility will there be an end to this violent epidemic seizing our nation. [My students] when confronted with a conflict, usually react with a violent expression, or a desire to do violence to solve their problems. I believe this is not innate, it is learned."

IN what seems to be an era of incivility, parents need to be teaching their children the need for kindliness to each other. Parents who are not monitoring their children's activities might be surprised at how much name-calling - "dork," "idiot," "dumbbell" - there is even in books and cartoons specifically designed for children.

Is there a child in class ostracized for one reason or another? How are other children taught to handle that situation? To shun that child or to reach out and be inclusive?

In a time of cultural desensitization, it is unrealistic to expect the school system to assume the rightful and proper role of parent. That parenting role is a demanding one but its critical element is communication. Communication also means listening.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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