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I wrote the original for this commentary right after the 1998 shooting at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Lessons might have been learned in that tragedy, but they were not implemented in time to prevent a worse tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
This is a reprint of an actual letter I mailed to the governor of Arkansas immediately after the Jonesboro shooting.
27 March 1998
Governor Mike Huckabee
Arkansas State Capitol
Little Rock, AR 72201
Your comments on violence in American society appeared on the Internet in the Yahoo! news pages. As you pursue this issue, please address the difference between real and fake violence.
Most of the violence we see in films and on TV is fiction. No one really gets hurt. This form of violence is not much different from Wily coyote being hit on the head by a dropped anvil while chasing the roadrunner. When this violence is over, the participants go home and enjoy dinner. Nevertheless, this is the violence that everyone wants to control or eliminate.
However, the violence we see in sports and on the evening news is real. Actual blood spatters the ground. Real pain is inflicted. Some persons are even killed. While all this is happening, no one suggests that the V-chip block National Hockey League games or that the evening news be censored.
I am concerned about the focus of attention on ending fake violence and the lack of attention towards real violence. Many children realize that almost all of the violence to which they are exposed is fake; that knowledge is dangerously incomplete because it prevents them from understanding the consequences of real violence. To be blunt, children need to know that death is indeed final within this world. There is no reversal or editing, no instant replay, no reset. Even if fake violence were removed from children's views, such artifacts as the electronic Tomagachi toy make children think that death only lasts until you press a button or change a battery. Attacking only fake violence is simplistic. We must not only show children the fiction behind fake violence but also teach them about tragic realities.
Finally, TV and films cannot be made to accept all the blame for what occurred on Tuesday. Will the growing concern about violence be translated into restrictions on the tools of violence? With respect to the tragedy on Tuesday, I must question how two young boys had access to such powerful weaponry. Will those adults who allowed them access to nine guns and rifles be held accountable?
David E. Ross
The two boys who shot the students and teachers in Jonesboro were declared guilty of murder in juvenile court. One boy, who had turned 14 since the tragedy, entered a guilty plea. The other boy, only 12, had his plea decreed by the judge, perhaps because he is too young under the law to make his own plea. Now they will be subject to confinement at least until they are 18 years old, perhaps until they are 21.
Tried as juveniles under Arkansas law, they could not be sentenced more severely. Before the hearing, relatives of the shooting victims condemned the law, saying these two boys are receiving sentences far too light for the crimes they committed. Those survivors want the boys held fully responsible for their actions. However, under the law, these two boys are not sufficiently responsible to drive, get married, sign a contract, buy alcoholic beverages or tobacco, vote, sign notes excusing them from school, hire the attorneys who represented them, consent to sexual intercourse, see an R-rated movie, sign a will, or open an account with a stockbroker. How is it that they are not sufficiently responsible for many of the ordinary acts of living but should then be held responsible for their crimes? Obviously the victims' relatives want revenge and not justice. They want to hang two youngsters who might not even be old yet enough to shave.
The Arkansas Legislature indeed responded by changing the law. Too late to affect this case, children as young as 10 years can now be tried as adults. Do such youngsters have the intellectual capacity to participate in their own defense as required of adults? If a plea is to be entered, would a 10 year old understand the consequences of pleading "guilty"? If a plea-bargain were offered, could a 10 year old really understand its terms? Why 10 years old and not 5? As we keep lowering the age at which a child can be held to adult standards of responsibility, when do we start lowering the age at which a child can have adult privileges?
Between Jonesboro and Littleton, the nation's attention was focused on Springfield, Oregon, where another school shooting occurred. How did a child — not even old enough to drive — acquire an arsenal from which he fired 51 rounds before being stopped? And how is it that hunters and marksmen need weapons that can fire so many rounds that they are still legal? (If you have an answer, it better not include a reference to the Second Amendment.)
Now, at Columbine High School, we see possibly the worst mass killing of students by other students in our nation's history. And again, we see political fingers pointing at the fake violence in movies and television (for example, pointed by Gary Bauer, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the 2000 presidential election).
My daughter reminds me that she remains non-violent despite being raised with TV and violent cartoons and drama, while neither Hitler nor Jack "The Ripper" watched TV. She points out that, if parents are so concerned about what is on TV, they should act to control what their own children watch and not try to control what the rest of us watch. Of course if TV were really the cause of bloodshed, why did it affect only those few boys? None of the other children in Jonesboro, Springfield, or Littleton — all watching the same TV shows — took up arms and killed anyone. And finally, bringing religion into the schools would have had no effect on the two boys in Jonesboro, who were raised in devout Christian homes.
Contrary to some suggestions, arming teachers is not the answer. How many more students would have been shot in the cross-fire between murderers and teachers? And, in the uproar of a crowded and hysterical classroom, what would be the consequences of a teacher mistaking the wrong student as the shooter? More violence is not the answer to violence.
It is time to point at real violence, at boxing and hockey on TV, at "gay bashing", at police killing unarmed minorities, and at spousal abuse. It is not good enough to look away and not participate. Now is the time to denounce real violence wherever we see it and to act against it. We must also learn to deal better with disappointment and frustration. Instead of a high school shooting, "road rage", or "going postal", we must all learn non-physical responses to anger. Do not look merely at children in school regarding this problem; uncontrolled responses to rage afflict (and kill) adults, too.
In the meantime, what action is being taken against those adults in Jonesboro and Springfield who supplied an array of weapons to children who murder? At least in Littleton, the police have publicly declared their intent to press charges against anyone who aided the shooters. And in the Colorado Legislature, a bill has died that would have significantly expanded the carrying of concealed guns, weapons that are too accessible when anger suddenly explodes. Legislation in Florida to shield gun manufacturers from liability for shooting deaths also appears dead for this year.
22 April 1999
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