In the Hands of Children

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Some gun-control advocates argue that certain safety devices can prevent a child from using a weapon taken without a parent's knowledge.

Some gun-control advocates argue that certain safety devices can prevent a child from using a weapon taken without a parent's knowledge. Guns sold with trigger locks can prevent children from using them, they say, and new technology now allows guns to be coded to recognize fingerprints so that the weapon can be discharged only by the owner.

Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland, for example, is pledging in his re-election campaign that all handguns sold in the state have such high-tech child safety devices. Gun owners' advocates have rejected the measure as too costly, and a similar measure was defeated in Oregon recently.

Since the Jenkins High shooting, the Savannah-Chatham County school district has adopted an "early detection system" to identify violent youths. Before enrolling, a student's police record is pulled. Any student who has committed one of seven serious felonies--such as armed robbery or rape--is transferred to a special alternative school. Now, district leaders say, if someone with Green's criminal history tried to get into any of their 46 schools, they would know about it.

"We had what I would consider to be a safe school environment" at the time of the incident, said Geri Smith, an interim deputy superintendent. "However, it became apparent that the lower-level disciplinary measures weren't enough in dealing with the small number of students who had a strong conviction record through juvenile court."

Linda Herman, the principal of Windsor Forest High School, has prevented 15 students with violent histories from enrolling this year.

"A parent's dearest possession is in this school, and they are confident I'm going to keep their child safe," says Herman, who is also the local representative for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. While she applauds the new safety protocol, Herman also acknowledges that short of making her 1,500-student school a fortress, any child could bring in a gun.

For that reason, Herman champions more extreme measures.

"The right to bear arms has gotten out of hand," Herman argues as she darts through a school hallway. If she had her way, all firearms not needed for one's work would be banned.

Still, many gun-rights advocates argue that a prohibition on firearms wouldn't eliminate school shootings because, they say, it's what's on children's minds, not in their hands, that is the problem.

"It's important that we as a nation try to get a handle on these [school shooting] tragedies to head off future ones," Powers, the NRA spokesman, says. "But you can ban all the firearms you want, and you're still going to have troubled kids."

Mental-health experts familiar with the statistics say that children are far more troubled and far more apt to use violence to solve problems than they were a decade or two ago.

Kevin Dwyer, the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists, says there's been a dramatic increase in the homicide and suicide rates in children in the past 30 years.

"Kids are feeling more alienated and depressed than in the 1970s, and there's a lack of trust of adults to seek help," he says.

The fact that half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce and that most households have two working parents who may have less time to spend with their children are two possible explanations for the greater number of troubled young people, he suggests.

But Dwyer also says that the fast-paced, media-saturated society of the 1980s and 1990s fosters violence because it makes children more impulsive. "Media, video games, and music all tell kids that the way to solve interpersonal problems is through violence," he says, citing a recent California study that showed that in 86 percent of television movies, the characters resorted to force to solve disputes. "In the '70s, kids used to fight with their fists; now, when kids have arguments, one of them gets home and gets his Uzi."

James Gordon, a parent in Savannah, agrees. Gordon's son, now 20, was with Martin three days before he was killed. Gordon believes that young people desensitized to violence should be given a reality check.

"You can ban all the firearms you want, and you're still going to have troubled kids."

Bill Powers,
National Rifle Association

"We should educate children on what guns really do. Schools should show kids dead bodies" in the morgue, he says.

Whatever is done, whether it's scare tactics, anger management, or conflict-resolution classes, the lessons should begin as early as possible, says Hendrix, the Chatham County assistant district attorney.

On the wall of Hendrix's office hangs a dead rat in a heat-sealed bag encased in glass. Hendrix once prosecuted a teenager who made his victim take a bite out of the rat, and the decomposed rodent is a visual reminder to Hendrix of the bad things some children will do.

"With at-risk kids, you have to get to them early. ... It's easier to change a 4- or 5-year-old than a 15- or 16-year-old," he says.

Sitting in the steel-caged visitors' area at the Valdosta State Prison, Aron Gilliam says he prays every night that something could have prevented him from pulling the trigger five years ago.

Now more philosophical than hot-headed, Gilliam swears that if he'd talked to someone about his anger and feelings of revenge, he wouldn't be serving a life sentence for murder.

"If my mother knew I had a gun, she would have wrung my neck," he says. Classes where children can learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully are the best way to lower the rate of juvenile violence, he says. After-school activities should also be expanded to give young people a place to go while their parents are working, he suggests.

If ever released on parole, Gilliam says he wants to be a landscaper. Peering through the prison's glass at the green grass, he says there's nothing like confinement to make you want to enjoy the great outdoors. He'd also like to work with children someday. "I want to do something positive to keep kids from going through this," says Gilliam, the electric door clicking shut behind him. "This is no place for them."

Keith Green has grown an inch or so in the year and a half he's been incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison, but the 18-year-old still has the face of a child.

Having earned his General Educational Development diploma in jail, Green says he spends a good portion of his days going to Bible study and repenting for the suffering he caused Martin's family. "He didn't deserve to die. That wasn't my intention," Green says, his feet tapping the prison floor.

While he doesn't have a prescription for preventing other teenagers from using guns to commit violence, he does believe that early exposure to violence can anesthetize people to brutality.

In the low-income housing project where he grew up in Savannah, guns were playthings, Green says.

"You'd hear gunfire every night. On the Fourth of July, you didn't know whether it was a firecracker or a gunshot," he says.

Green learned early to view firearms not as a tool for hunting game but as a powerful instrument for protection in a hostile environment.

Having peers who encouraged violence rather than squelch it didn't help either, he says. If his friend hadn't let him borrow a gun, he doubts he'd be living behind brick walls and curls of barbed wire in Alto, Ga. "I wish I'd chosen a better way," says the teenager, who won't be eligible for parole until 2011. "I'd give everything but my soul to have my freedom back."

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 34-39

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as In the Hands of Children
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