By Eric E. Clingan
On baby rednecks bearing rifles
The script would include lines like this: "Tomorrow y'all are gonna find out if you live or die." That is what Mitchell Johnson told his classmates at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Mitchell is 13 years old. "I killed people because people like me are mistreated everyday." So said Luke Woodham, commenting on his massacre of his own mother and two others at school in Pearl, Mississippi. Luke is 16. And still another youth, this one 14, opened fire on his classmates at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, last December. He killed three and wounded five. It seems playground bullies aren't interested in just lunch money anymore.
From the Jonesboro tragedy comes this revealing piece of Americana: Little Andrew "Drew" Golden was taught to handle a gun at the tender age of four. Seven years later he learned how to pull a fire alarm. Then, with the cleverness of Charles Manson, he coolly gunned down innocent children in cold blood. The ultimate playground bullies, these two eliminated the possibility of self-defense from their prey.
These recent experiences of Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi all testify to the existence of a violent sub-culture in the American South. Indeed, the swath of land which extends from Maryland to Texas gives birth to more juvenile homicides than any other region, according to FBI statistics. Additionally, guns are present in 48 percent of southern homes while the rest of the nation is similarly armed at a rate of 36 percent.
So pervasive is the southern presence of guns that a classmate of Drew's recalled he "bragged a lot that he could always get his hands on his parents' guns if he wanted to" and no one blinked an eye.
Most often violence is driven by spur-of-the-moment anger leading to the most regrettable actions taken during a momentary lapse of reason. In the case of 11-year-old Drew and 13-year-old Mitchell, however, the exact opposite is true. "These attacks were planned. These boys had a chance to think things over. And calmly, coolly, they decided to take care of matters with pistols and rifles" Gary Goldman told USA Today. Goldman is the author of Books and Bullets: Violence in the Public Schools.
Without question, then, America faces the immediate problem of escalating violence on a descending age scale. Whether it's some redneck hick from the back woods of Outhouse, Alabama, or some bandanna-wearing gang-banger from Phoenix, Arizona, kids are resorting to the actions our society has reserved for adults, albeit adults with poor judgment and self-control. Finally, in some areas of the country, this trend is exacerbated by the accessibility shotguns, pistols and semi-automatic assault rifles have to children. What can we do?
We can accede to their demands and treat them like adults, with all the trappings such treatment may provide, including the death penalty for cold-blooded murder and life in prison without parole for other heinous crimes. This is the solution proposed by Jimmy Jeffress, a Democratic state representative in Arkansas. Jeffress intends on proposing "legislation to do away with age restrictions completely and to give authorities some leeway to charge and prosecute juveniles as adults based on the facts of each individual case." But is there evil enough inside any eight-year-old which would convince any one of us of his incorrigibility and bring us to then damn his future existence?
Another idea that is gaining a groundswell of support and may soon be a ballot issue in some states is parental accountability. Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control, Inc., told USA Today that the Jonesboro incident justifies "the need to hold parents more accountable for any firearm in the house." Notwithstanding that those boys stole their weapons from their grandparents, their daily access to them was without obstacle, all the same.
An important point to remember when considering this new approach is that it is not new at all. Consider, in certain cities today parents can be dragged into court to answer for the truancy of their children. In some cases, fines have been levied and even jail sentences have been threatened against those with offending offspring. Also, civil matters can call a parent into accountability. A parent co-signing for their child's first credit card or car loan runs the risk of ruined credit and worse consequences. Should that child's car be involved in an accident, more than likely the parent will bear the brunt of increased insurance rates.
Perhaps a two-fold piece of legislation should be offered, then. First, require, upon the purchase of any firearm, receipt of a signed statement of responsibility from its new owner that should the owner's children access and use the weapon the gun owner would be as accountable as if he had pulled the trigger himself. Second, incorporate a new set of penalties for just this type of offender, since few could stomach the death penalty in these situations.
By re-introducing accountability into both parent-child and individual-society relationships, we may be able to foster the responsibility we once felt for each other when that playground bully came calling.
Eric E. Clingan is a senior majoring in political science. His column, "The Provacatuer appears Tuesdays.