Is there anything left to say?

Guns, neglect, bullying, the role of race: If you feel like you've heard this all before, it's because you have.


Daryl Lindsey
March 6, 2001 7:26PM (UTC)

An unidentified 15-year-old student went on a rampage Monday at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., an affluent suburb of San Diego, wounding 13 and killing two before he was apprehended by police. Cable news shows devoted their programming to the tragedy all day Monday -- or at least until the news of Vice President Dick Cheney's most recent hospitalization began to compete for airtime.

But is there anything to say about a school shooting that hasn't been said before? Apparently, not much. A trip through the Salon archives offered a look at the full range of arguments being revived in the coverage of the Santana High shooting.

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1. What's gun control got to do with it? The pitch of rallying cries for increased gun control invariably rises following each new school shooting. Conservative Salon columnist David Horowitz dismisses those demands as knee-jerk liberal reactions. After Columbine, he wrote: "The fact is that there are 20,000 gun laws already on the books, 17 of which were violated by the Columbine killers. What would one more law accomplish that the other 20,000 could not?"

2. OK, don't increase regulations on guns. Ban them. Shortly after the Columbine massacre, essayist Sallie Tisdale argued in these pages that we should abandon the push for gun control and ban handguns outright. That's what the British did following the slaughter of 16 young children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland -- something unachievable in the U.S., where Congress is controlled by special interests and discussion of gun control is as divisive as debates over gay rights or abortion.

Tisdale called for a repeal of the Second Amendment. "Do we really believe that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson intended the citizens of their imagined country to be scared to send their children to school?" she asked readers.

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3. It isn't about guns, it's about neglect. The recent wave of horrific youth violence has nothing to do with gun-control laws or mandatory safety locks. It's about the way we raise our children. Last year, a first grader shot and killed his 6-year-old classmate, Kayla Rolland. The prepubescent shooter, we learned, was living in a crack house with his uncle after being abandoned by his mother and father (who had been sent to jail). Not a terribly surprising place to find a gun -- but where were the parents, the caring family or the concerned neighbors?

Following that pathetic episode, Beth Broeker, a Phoenix attorney and volunteer for neglected and abused children, wrote, "Where were the 100 volunteers -- before or after the tragedy? Where were the people who recognized this boy's misery, who would hold him so that he might heal, so that he wouldn't suffocate from neglect?"

4. Bullying has consequences, and they can be deadly. On Monday, Santana High students told reporters that the shooter had talked about coming to school with a gun, but they didn't believe him, and some felt remorse for not warning authorities about his threat. They also depicted the shooter as someone who'd been bullied by classmates.

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That's become common: As former Salon media columnist James Poniewozik observed following a 1999 shooting at a high school in Conyers, Ga., high school kids don't blame gun control or bad parenting for campus massacres -- they blame each other -- for the bullying, teasing and harassment that pushes the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebolds of the world over the edge. A CNN-Gallup poll taken after the Columbine shootings confirmed this thesis. And yet acknowledgement that students must carry some of the burden for these killings doesn't square well with the boilerplate pegs the media applies indiscriminately when these shootings occur.

5. But most kids who are bullied don't kill. In response to a panic that would lead school officials to crack down on misfits, advocates for kids often remind us that most misfits don't kill. The media should avoid typecasting students in metaphorical Trench Coat Mafias and instead ask deeper questions about why these kids have become so alienated.

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6. Our juvenile justice system is failing us, because it's too harsh/lenient/fill in the blank. The 15-year-old boy responsible for the Santee High School shootings will be tried as an adult, San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst told reporters. But experts disagree about whether tougher sentencing is the best way to deter teen killers, and Americans tend to be conflicted on that point.

A poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International last year found that 81 percent of Americans believe that juvenile crime prevention programs are as important as the jailing of teen criminals. But California passed Prop. 21 the same year, toughening consequences for juvenile offenders.

7. What's race got to do with it? We stereotype inner-city schools as violent, and yet these shootings always take place at predominantly white suburban or rural high schools. Race isn't an easy topic for the cable news shows, so it's rarely tackled directly.

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But after Columbine, writer Debra Dickerson acknowledged that blacks take secret -- and unwarranted -- comfort in the fact that school killers tend to be white, while Jill Nelson examined the racism inherent in the question, "How could this happen here?" -- a lament heard after every white suburban school shooting, including the Santee tragedy.


Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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