May 12, 2000

May 12, 2000 | Commentary on

The Million Mom Media Event

When it comes to political battles, children are the "zero option," the nuclear weapon you deploy to annihilate your opponents. So expect to hear a lot of talk about children at this Sunday's "Million Mom March" in Washington, a stage-managed spectacle designed to sell the gun-control agenda to the American people.

To be sure, gun violence against children has been receiving increased media attention. Recently, a 16-year-old student wounded seven children when he began shooting near the entrance of Washington's National Zoo. A month earlier, a six-year-old Michigan boy shot and killed one of his classmates. These reprehensible acts are complicated to understand and resistant to legislative solutions.

But that won't stop the Clinton administration from trying. In the debate over guns, the administration sees a political opportunity and will push gun-control measures at every turn, no matter how tangential the underlying legislation. The latest ploy: Hijack the pending re-authorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a vehicle for gun control.

On one level, this is a reasonable tactic given the shootings at Columbine High School last year. It's also grossly opportunistic. We can't help but think that had the shooting occurred at a nursing home, the administration would be trying to attach gun control to long-term-care legislation.

The gun-control advocates also face a larger problem: the fact that violence involving young people, especially gun violence, is rapidly declining. Events such as Columbine are like plane crashes - riveting, but extremely rare. According to the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, which recently released a report entitled "School House Hype," the number of school-associated violent deaths declined from 43 in 1998 to 26 last year - a 40 percent drop.

In related research, the Centers for Disease Control found that between 1993 and 1997, the number of students who reported carrying a weapon in the past 30 days had decreased by 30 percent. And Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, reports that "almost none of the gun violence experienced by adolescents occurs in schools." Even Education Secretary Richard Riley notes that "less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-aged children occur in or around our public schools."

Then why all the hype at the federal level? The answer is simple: public opinion and media aggrandizement. According to the Education Department, though crime rates have dropped, the percentage of students who reported feeling less safe at school increased between 1993 and 1997. A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News in 1998 found that 71 percent of the respondents thought it was likely a school shooting could happen in their community.

Instead of looking at the hard data, however, the administration has seized on the public's hysteria over guns to push for everything from background checks to increased spending on ineffective after-school and violence-prevention programs. This is an easier federal fix than addressing the root causes of youth violence, which include a lack of discipline and parental involvement - something trigger locks can't fix.

Nor, as it lobbies for new gun laws, can the administration claim to be particularly good at enforcing existing gun laws. Under the Gun-Free School Zones Act, for example, the 6,000 students caught at school with a weapon in the past two years could all be prosecuted. How many have the administration actually prosecuted? Just 13. Not that additional gun laws would do any good. Washington, D.C., has the toughest regulations on the books - handguns are completely banned - yet it suffers from one of the highest homicide rates in the country.

According to Luntz Research, a polling firm, a majority of Americans believe additional gun-control legislation would not have prevented the Columbine massacre. In fact, gun control consistently finishes at or near the bottom of the list of solutions to youth violence. Eighty-four percent of those polled believe that greater involvement by parents in the lives of their children would have the greatest impact on reducing gun violence in our schools.

They're right. More gun laws that try to impose morality from without are no substitute for parental instruction that instills morality from within. If the moms assembling in Washington this weekend are truly concerned about making America safe for children, that's what they should be talking about.

Nina Shokraii Rees is a former senior education policy analyst and Jennifer Garrett is a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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