Creating Hysteria Over Guns
By John Lott Jr.
The concern about violence in public schools has quickly turned into hysteria. Fanned by politicians, notably President Clinton, and the media, what may have begun as misguided but reasonable concerns over safety has ignited into an implacable and unreasoned hatred of guns, or indeed anything that looks like a weapon. Across the nation, those entrusted with the care of children have transformed firearms into a symbol of menace and evil, attempting to purge guns from the consciousness of kids, even when all admit doing so would in no way improve safety.
I had a firsthand glimpse of the hysteria last fall, when I took my four boys to the Yale University Health Service for their annual medical checkups. Prominently displayed posters on the walls warned about having handguns in the home. Along with the normal questions about medical histories, the nurse practitioner asked us whether we owned guns and whether they were locked up or loaded. Her tone made it clear she disapproved of our answers, and she was unmoved by the fact that the Centers for Disease Control could only identify 21 children under age 15 dying from accidental handgun deaths in 1996. But the hospital had no signs warning parents about 5-gallon water buckets, in which 40 children under the age of 5 drown every year, or about bathtubs, which claim 80 lives. No questions were asked about whether we kept our buckets stored away or our bathroom doors locked. Yet the hysteria Americans may face when they walk into their pediatrician's offices pales when compared to what is going on in our schools. Under a "zero tolerance" policy, students face suspension or expulsion for even carrying around pictures of guns or other weapons. Students ranging from elementary school to college have even been expelled for even bringing water pistols to school, though no one believes brightly colored plastic water gun can be confused with a firearm.
On Tuesday, Jesse Jackson entered the fray again by asking the Illinois state legislature to limit the zero tolerance penalties imposed by local school boards. He believes these rules have primarily impacted black students, though he claims this is not a racial issue: "Eventually, whites who are victims of this will join in great numbers, too." Take some examples that have all occurred during just the last few months:
* A Minnesota high school refused to accept a yearbook picture of a graduating senior sitting on a 155 mm howitzer. Senior Samantha Jones had chosen the picture because she was proud of her plans to join the Army this coming June. Like many seniors she had picked a picture that showed her future plans. Even though the school board chairman failed to overturn the decision, he noted how proud he was of the young woman "honoring the flag and service."
* Ponder, Texas, school officials had a
13-year-old boy arrested and jailed for six days because of a class Halloween writing
assignment. The boy wrote a story involving the deaths of two fellow students and the
accidental shooting death of the class' teacher. The county district attorney did not plan
to prosecute the youngster, noting that "It looks to me the child was doing
what the teacher told him to do, which was write a scary story." Nor did the
teacher appear offended or threatened, giving the boy a grade of 100, plus extra credit
for reading it aloud to the class.
* Three San Diego students found a gun while walking to school. After briefly picking it up to see if it was a real gun, they threw it away and went on to school. When one of the students informed a teacher about the gun, all three students were suspended and currently face the threat of expulsion. The student's offense? The California state code requires the suspension of any student who possesses a firearm on the way to school, and the school principal sees no leeway in interpreting the rules. One city councilman was so worried that the punishment would discourage students from reporting any weapons to the proper authorities that he raised a $500 reward for the suspended student who reported the gun.
* After 13 award-winning years as the
Reading, Ohio, school district superintendent, John Varis stepped down prematurely. News
reports claim that he was forced out for advocating that teachers be allowed to carry guns
for protection. In reality, all Mr. Varis did was launch a broad inquiry into ways of
making school safer, and along the way he mentioned the possibility of allowing guards or
teachers to have guns. What Mr. Varis found most disconcerting is that people's
minds simply "shut down" when he came to talking about safety measures for
school attacks. Mr. Varis is puzzled by the hostile reaction to even asking about
what policies might save the most lives. He is also worried that signs in front of schools
proclaiming the area a gun-free zone are a "sheer idiocy. When you translate the sign
it says that risk-free zone for a perpetrator." Mr. Varis' resignation has not
stemmed the hysteria. Some parents are now trying to revoke his pension.
* In December, the federal government launched psychological profile tests that will be used to identify students in kindergarten through 12th grade that may be prone to violence. Among the reported questions that will be kept on file is whether or not the family owns a gun. Given the recent hysteria over guns, it is hard to believe federal law has prohibited guns within 1,000 feet of a school since 1995. Yet even supporters of this law will be hard-pressed to claim it has produced the desired results. Indeed, that may be what started the hysteria. By demonizing a broad class of objects, anti-gun activists are swinging the debate away from facts and that guns on net save lives. Rooting out guns has become an end unto itself.
John R. Lott Jr. is a senior research
scholar at the Yale University Law
School. He is author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun
Control Laws" (University of Chicago Press, 1998).