What has happened to our world that I find myself methodically explaining to my 9-year-old what to do in the event of gunshots at his school?
Like every parent everywhere, I tense up each time I hear of a school shooting, then exhale heavily, relieved that it didn’t happen in my kids’ school, in our school district, in our city.
Monday’s burst of gunfire in Chardon, Ohio, which left three high school students dead and two hurt, was just the latest grisly chapter in what has become an unnervingly commonplace occurrence: a disaffected child — in this case a student at a school for at-risk kids who was alternately described as a “bullied outcast” and a “very normal, just teenage boy“ — unleashes his frustration and aggression on his classmates.
Ohio is far away from my Seattle home, making it easy to rationalize that the same thing can’t happen here. And yet halfway across the country, the 5,000 people who live in Chardon, about half an hour from Cleveland, apparently felt the same way. “This stuff doesn’t happen here at Chardon,” one parent on his way to pick up his 10th-grader told CNN. And yet it did happen there, just as it did last week in Bremerton, Wash., where the setting was even more alarming: an elementary-school classroom.
In that naïve yet necessary way parents have of convincing themselves that tragedy won’t befall their family, I had never uttered the word “Columbine” to my kids, never engaged them in what-if scenarios involving weapons and school. I thought I had at least a few more years before launching into those uncomfortable conversations, and yet there sat my son, reading in the Seattle Times about the fellow third-grader who had left a classmate critically injured. Bremerton is not faraway Ohio; it is right here, a short ferry ride away.
The boy who has not been identified because he is only 9 — young enough that he couldn’t help dissolving into tears when, dressed in his child-size, jail-issued orange jumpsuit, he had to face a juvenile court judge — apparently snatched a handgun from his mother’s home. His divorced parents — both of whom have criminal records — had relinquished custody, leaving the boy to live with his uncle, a situation that apparently did not please him; he had told classmates he planned to run away and needed protection.
Police have reported that the boy wasn’t aiming at 8-year-old Amina Kocer-Bowman, who was accidentally hit in the abdomen after he slammed his backpack on his desk, triggering the loaded gun to fire. Does the knowledge that the boy wasn’t targeting Amina — in contrast to T.J. Lane, the alleged Ohio shooter whom eyewitnesses said zeroed in on a group of four students — matter? Not to the parents of the dead and wounded.
Regardless of intent, it is dismaying that a 9-year-old had access to a gun to begin with. According to the Associated Press:
In twenty-seven states, there is some form of firearm child access prevention laws. Such laws can include criminal penalties for adults who allow children to get their hands on guns, but Washington has no such laws, according to the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence.
In Olympia [Washington’s capital], the Seattle Democrat who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee said this case points to a lapse in state law. “We do not hold people very accountable in this state for leaving guns around the house with small children,” Sen. Adam Kline said.
Kline said that he would consider a bill to address it during the next legislative session next year, but didn’t sound hopeful of its chances.
There have been shootings at schools that involved younger children. In 2000, 6-year-old Kayla Rolland, a Michigan first-grader, was fatally shot by a 6-year-old classmate who brought a gun from home. That boy was not criminally charged; prosecutors said he was too young to be held responsible. Last year, a 6-year-old kindergartner at a Houston elementary school accidentally fired a gun as he was showing it off to friends, injuring three students.
Other laws, such as the contested Gun-Free School Zones Act, further ban the possession of firearms on school property. But do any of these measures truly make a difference? Older kids bent on a massacre are not likely to think twice because what they’re planning is illegal; younger kids won’t have a clue.
If anything, the events of the past week or so only underscore the importance of upholding the right of pediatricians to inquire about gun safety in the home. We hear only about the spectacle of school shootings, but each day, eight U.S. kids die of gunshot wounds, which is eight kids too many.
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