Dylan Klebold “is intelligent enough to make any dream a reality,” a juvenile court counselor wrote last year. The police will investigate, the psychiatrists will speculate, the moralists will fulminate, but none of them are likely to make comprehensive sense of the knotted fantasies and rages that led Klebold and Eric Harris–as coldly planful as Leopold and Loeb, as unforgiving as Carrie, as well armed as Rambo–to apply that intelligence to their murderous rampage at Columbine High School. Still, the pinstriped mafiosi of the culture wars, from Gary Bauer to Trent Lott, are busy presenting these two psychopaths as the embodiment of the dangers of unfiltered Internet access, Goth culture, abortion and godless parenting. So in the interests of reality-testing, let it be noted that the current generation of teenagers is less likely to use drugs, is more sexually conservative and less likely to be caught up in school violence than that of twenty years ago.
Just one salient detail separates the schoolyard shooters of Littleton, Paducah, Jonesboro and Pearl from angry and alienated youth of previous generations: greater access to guns and the corporate-marketed culture of firearms. In case no one noticed, all four of these recent school rampages took place in states with lax gun laws. As established in the recent Brooklyn handgun liability case, these states were flooded with weapons by the arms makers. Among the legally traded weapons in Klebold and Harris’s arsenal was a TEC-9 semiautomatic, among the most notorious of the high-tech weapons marketed to young consumers in the mid-eighties. It may be hard to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill juvenile delinquent and a potential mass murderer, but it’s easy to see the wisdom of keeping guns out of the hands of both.
Easy, that is, for everyone but the NRA and Charlton Heston, whose idiotic comments–claiming that the Littleton disaster might have been prevented by an armed guard, when in fact an armed guard was in the school and exchanged fire with the youths–displayed his movement at its most cultlike. The scale of firepower available to Harris and Klebold may at least make Littleton a tipping point in the struggle for regulation of gun marketers. It forced legislators in several states to take off the table the NRA’s noxious proposal to outlaw municipal liability suits against firearms corporations.
Littleton–along with Paducah, Jonesboro and Pearl–ought to also force a careful consideration of the codes of race and class that define “at-risk” youth. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that in many an inner-city school, students with Harris’s or Klebold’s profile–weak academic performers, arrested for burglarizing a van, wearing gang colors, vandalizing classmates’ cars, writing violent fantasies for class assignments and smashing bottles for shrapnel for hours on end–would sound alarm bells. If lucky, they’d be caught in the social-intervention safety net; if less fortunate, added to the prison census.
But affluent children of the white suburbs are presumed to be programmed for success rather than the bearers of violent social pathology. It appears that after their appearance in juvenile court for breaking into a van, followed by some short-term counseling, Harris and Klebold returned to school with no additional attention or support, and the local sheriff’s office buried reports from a parent that the two were threatening a fellow student. This is not to seek scapegoats for two boys’ insane and apocalyptic acts but to assert that only a broadly conceived community safety net–derided as bleeding-heart social work by those now rushing to blame the culture–can catch such children as they fall.
The two shooters’ vows of revenge for prior humiliations at the hands of “jocks” and “preps,” the subject of much attention in the days after Littleton, reflect the twisted perceptions of killers and are only an echo of deeper-rooted motives. Yet as Harvard psychiatrist James Gilligan noted after years spent interviewing murderers in Massachusetts, “nothing stimulates violence as powerfully as the experience of being shamed and humiliated.” For that reason, it is important to stand against the culture-warriors’ demonization of music, video games and other pastimes of students who already feel like outcasts. For the same reason, there’s no greater danger than overreacting with another round of tough juvenile-crime laws, as some Republicans are now suggesting. The repeated humiliations of prison life desensitize still-developing adolescent brains as does rapid-fire target-shooting, training the young to react with hair-trigger reflexes once they are released into the mainstream.
The culture warriors paint Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as symbols of moral relativism and lax parenting. Trent Lott calls for a “national conversation on youth and culture.” Clinton himself, ever unwilling to let a high-profile crime go unaddressed by a new punishment, would, along with his more sensible gun regulation proposals, prosecute parents of adolescent shooters, which seems absurd when in Colorado any 18-year-old can purchase a gun-show pistol without restriction. The real question to emerge from Littleton is narrower: how to put the safety catch back on the lives of a small number of explosive teenagers. Start by taking the guns out of their hands, and move forward from there.