The murder of six-year-old Kayla Rolland, the Michigan first-grader shot by a classmate last month, sparked rightful outrage about firearms and the killing of American children.
But in the rush to reduce America's high juvenile homicide rates into a gun-control debate, we're missing the chilling bigger picture of the real and deadly risks our children face, and what it says about our society.
Kayla's murder prompted President Clinton to call for trigger locks on all handguns. And the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) urged doctors to discuss guns with all young children they help.
Both calls for action relied on statistics from a recent government study, "Kids and Guns." But that same report, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, contains chilling information that our obsession with guns can obscure. In other Western countries, the report tells us, the homicide rate for children age 4 and under is just less than 1 per 100,000.
But it's quadruple that in the US, at 4.1 per 100,000. And for every American child 4 or younger, more than eight others die violently by other means - blunt objects, strangulation, or, most commonly, hands, fists, or feet.
Even in the 5 to 14 age range, the American nongun murder rate is still more than twice as high as the international comparison group - although the rate of murders by firearms does increase considerably as children get older.
While the rate of child gun homicide in the US is much higher than elsewhere - as everyone acknowledges - so is the rate of nongun murder. Even if all the gun homicides were taken out of the equation, America would still have an infant-homicide rate more than 3.5 times as high as the other Western countries.
This is a staggering revelation. The concern over gun murders - which is, of course, completely legitimate - is blinding us to another significant social problem. In 1997, 738 children under age 13 were murdered in the US - just 133 by guns, according to the FBI.
America is witnessing something barbaric happening to its young children. These rates of child homicide would be incredible were they not presented in official government figures.
Brianna Blackmond, a 23-month-old Washington, D.C., girl who died in January from a blow to the head shortly after being returned to her mother from a foster home, is more typical of the young children killed in this country. But how much press attention did that death receive outside Washington, compared with Kayla Rolland's tragic but unusual death?
It is also important to note that the main thrust of the "Kids and Guns" study is that the rise and subsequent fall in the murder rate among older juveniles in the 1990s was driven by firearm murders and the consequent gun-control measures. But this does not apply to murders of children aged 13 or younger. The murder rate in that group was 1.8 per 100,000 in 1976 and 1.7 in 1997 (never having risen above 2.1 in the intervening 20 years). Children under 13 are being killed just about as often now as they were during the height of the crack-fueled murder boom of the early 1990s. If anything has been done to combat the problem, it hasn't worked.
But on the other hand, child murder is not a dispersed problem - it is tightly clustered geographically. Eighty-five percent of US counties reported no juvenile homicides in 1997, and only 7 percent experienced two or more. In great swaths of the country, child murder is virtually unknown. The problem is confined mainly to the big cities of the East and West coasts, and to the Southwest.
Despite the attention paid to outbreaks of violence in peaceful suburbs and schools, the overwhelming majority of child murders happens elsewhere. This fact alone would imply that across-the-board federal solutions affecting the entire country may be misplaced. The best use of government resources must surely be to concentrate where the problem is greatest. And for pediatricians nationwide to talk to all young children about guns, as the AAP proposes, is well-intentioned, but will achieve little.
Certainly, gun murder of youths 13 to 19 is a significant problem, but the characteristics of murder in this category are clearly quite different than in the younger cohort.
By letting ourselves believe that guns are the problem for pre-adolescents, we are avoiding the unpalatable truth that something is very wrong in American society. Yet we focus on exceptional cases, and ignore the unsettling nature of the daily reality. There's a lesson here. We may be able to reduce child-murder rates to the levels of other countries if we concentrate on what causes those murders - and guns aren't the biggest factor.
There may even be a domino effect; children raised in an environment where their lives have little value may well regard the lives of others in the same light when they are seduced by the power of the gun. But breaking that circle, making childhood safer and saving the lives of the youngest children may help save older children and youths in the years to come.
Perhaps the safety locks we most need are the ones that other civilized countries place in their citizens' consciences.
Kayla Rolland was, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule. It is the Brianna Blackmonds who really deserve the attention of the nation's doctors and the president.
* Iain Murray is senior research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving public understanding of scientific, social, and quantitative research.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society