Column

Casualties of the right to bear arms

Today’s outcasts can grab a handy semiautomatic and, taking cool moves from the latest flick, go kill their classmates

Bob Levin May 3 1999
Column

Casualties of the right to bear arms

Today’s outcasts can grab a handy semiautomatic and, taking cool moves from the latest flick, go kill their classmates

Bob Levin May 3 1999

Casualties of the right to bear arms

Column

Today’s outcasts can grab a handy semiautomatic and, taking cool moves from the latest flick, go kill their classmates

Bob Levin

OK, let’s get this straight. The kids—the killers— called themselves the Trenchcoat Mafia. They were into heavy-metal music, violent video games, black lipstick and nail polish; they sewed swastikas on their black dusters and talked about Hitler, about how to buy Uzis and build pipe bombs. But they were just loners, outcasts. Geeks. A little weird. Kids other kids made fun of. They didn’t seem to he a problem.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We go looking for answers, we always do, knowing full well there may be none. A couple of disturbed kids—it could happen anywhere, any time, it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it’s easier to think that. Otherwise you have to dissect the whole culture, to blame, as American conservatives do, the permissive society, or, taking the liberal line, to blame guns.

You have to consider negligent parents and oblivious educators and whether you really need that pistol in the drawer, and you have to wonder what’s going on—how benumbed we’ve all become—when kids who give the Nazi salute after rolling strikes in the school bowling league are just different, not a problem.

Maybe, in a way, the conservatives and liberals are both right. Sure, there have always been outcast kids, but today’s outcasts can descend into Doom or the WWF or Marilyn Manson, they can commune with like-minded losers on Internet hate sites and not feel so alone. And once their rage is stoked and justified, once they’re deep into the darkness and set to let loose as kids have long done in fast cars or on bad drugs or simply with a clothesline in a closet, they can grab a handy semiautomatic and, borrowing cool moves from the latest mayhem flick, go blow away their classmates.

That this happened in Littleton, Colo.—so serene and scrubfaced it ought to be in Canada—is evidence enough that no place is immune. But you can’t shoot people without a gun and this is where the conservatives and the odious National Rifle Association go so unconscionably wrong, spouting their endless Second Amendment drivel about the right to bear arms, quoting Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton on the importance of a well-girded citizenry, as if the enemy were still a colonial power threatening American liberty at musket-point and not drive-by shooters and trigger-happy teens. “I’m the NRA,” goes the slogan, and a nation of 270 million people bristles with some 230 million guns (compared with seven million among 30 million Canadians). Every year, guns kill 13.7 Americans per 100,000 (about 3.8 Canadians per 100,000); in 1996-1997, more than 6,000 U.S. students were expelled for packing heat to school.

The gun culture: you can’t overemphasize how ubiquitous it is. I grew up in the States and it still strikes me. In Indiana a divorced woman I knew slept with a loaded handgun under her pillow, ready for any intruder; the kid in the apartment below me got drunk one night and shot up the fire station; a stroll in the country ended with a woman popping up from behind my car and poking me in the gut with a shotgun, grilling me on why I’d walked on her property. (Her husband, pedalling up with his rifle lying conveniently across his handlebars, was a friendlier sort.) In Oklahoma, dinner at a new acquaintance’s house closed with the kids—a grade-school boy and girl—going out “to do some shooting” and I assumed hoops until I heard the gunfire. In Atlanta, where most whites live north of 1-20 and blacks south of it, my wife was officially told, upon starting work at the newspaper downtown, that while many people bring guns to the office please check them at the front desk before riding up to the newsroom.

This is a national obsession and it’s lunacy. On the NRA’s Web site, its president Charlton Heston—who likes to point out that in the movies he played three presidents, several kings, a few saints, Old and New Testament prophets and of course Moses—informs members (and you can hear that voice) that the schedule of the 1999 national meeting in Denver this week has been modified “to show our profound sympathy and respect for the families and communities ... in their time of great loss.” Which is a delicate way of saying that, politically speaking, this is not the best moment for gaudy bazaars of enough advanced weaponry to invade Yugoslavia, but neither, apparently, is it a time to reconsider their insistence on preserving “our precious freedoms” in the hopes of maybe saving a few kids.

Guns, a death-obsessed culture, disaffected youths: it’s a potent combination but it’s hardly new. In 1955, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo were the troubled teens in Rebel Without a Cause, playing out their alienation with knives, guns and killer hot rods. “Teenage terror torn from today’s headlines,” blared the movie poster and adults were appalled, saying the film advocated violence, madness and death and unfairly indicted parents.

We look for answers, always, and maybe sometimes the answers are too simplistic. Maybe you can’t blame Littleton on Doom and heavy metal. Maybe the whole safety issue is overstated, blown up by a few horrific incidents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fewer than one per cent of all homicides among school-age children occur in or around schools, which sounds almost reassuring. But don’t try that one on the parents of 14 Colorado kids whose rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were snuffed out by the right to bear arms.