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Bad week for kids, but pendulum may be swinging

It’s no big deal anymore,” a 16-year-old was heard remarking about the coverage of the school shooting in Santee, Calif., March 6 by a 15-year-old who allegedly shot and killed two and wounded 13. The next day, as if to prove the point, a 14-year-old girl walked into a Catholic school in Williamsport, Pa., and wounded a 13-year-old classmate.

It was a bad week for kids. In Florida on March 9, 14-year-old Lionel Tate received a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. He was 12 years old when he beat to death a 6-year-old playmate. He said he was imitating professional wrestlers at the time.

Teenage shootings, a juvenile killing, and the panic about “our kids” begin anew. The angst over the breakup of families, the awful alienation some kids feel and the effects of a violence-soaked popular culture bubble to the surface once again. Helplessness is the cloud that overhangs a new round of funerals, special counseling sessions and community-wide grieving.

We can take the logical, immediate, preventive steps in our schools, as Sr. Mary Angela Shaughnessy outlines in the story on page 3. We can take the deeper trails into new kinds of education leading to long-range solutions, as Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki suggests on page 18. The unshakable and disturbing sense remains, however, that something out of control, something we can’t quite get our hands on, is disturbing our kids.

The incidents spotlight two peculiarly U.S. obsessions -- the need to have easy and unimpeded access to firearms and the need to punish harshly -- that might provide some hint of what’s gone out of control and what might be changing.

The pendulum may be swinging toward reason on the matter of trying youngsters as adults and sentencing minors.

To his credit, even prosecuting attorney Ken Padowitz recoiled when Broward County Judge Joel T. Lazarus imposed a mandatory life sentence on Tate. “This was a vicious, horrible murder. But I do not think that life is the appropriate sentence,” Padowitz said.

Our penchant for locking up and throwing away the key has gone over the edge and it took a life sentence for a 14-year-old to cause a stir.

Latest word has it that a clemency petition, backed up by the prosecutor, is on a fast track to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said he would consider it.

This should not be a difficult decision. Certainly a measure of mercy will find a sentence that takes into account the severe nature of the crime and consideration of the victim’s family without destroying another young life in the doing.

Taking on the fanatical gun culture in this country, so far beyond the limits of reason that no amount of domestic violence should be surprising, is quite another matter. The cases of kids killing other kids with weapons from their parents’ or grandparents’ arsenals has numbed us against shock.

The situation is inexplicable. At one level concern over our kids’ safety can be extreme. The technology of safety -- from car seats to cribs to in-home monitoring systems has become part of our lives. We are on hyper-alert for any signs of child abuse. Yet parents rarely, if ever, are held accountable when a child gets hold of a weapon and goes on the hunt for other humans. What message are we sending?

The message says life is precious, but only to a point. We have to maintain access to weapons and when the inevitable happens, we have to have access to punishment without mercy. Justice isn’t even suggested.

There are signs, however, that our common sense is awakening regarding both.

The National Rifle Association has a new friend in the White House. President Bush, as governor of Texas, backed laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons and making it more difficult to sue gun manufacturers.

But as a recent New York Times analysis pointed out, even with the Bush election and the overwhelming strength of the NRA, significant signs exist that gun-control forces are being heard. “Of the seven Senate races where the NRA spent the most money, five of its candidates lost,” the Times wrote. All five of the losers “were NRA allies and all were replaced by advocates of gun control.”

In addition, ballot measures in Colorado and Oregon requiring gun buyers to undergo background checks at gun shows “passed overwhelmingly, though the NRA spent $1.7 million trying to kill them.”

Taking on the gun lobby and injecting mercy into our penal system will not solve all the problems. Maybe, though, acting in those arenas will begin changing the message our kids hear. Maybe they’ll begin believing that all life is precious -- and that we still think kids -- all kids -- are a big deal.

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001