By Timothy Wheeler, M.D.
America is shocked by the carnage wrought by two armed students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on Tuesday. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both juniors at the school, killed 13 of their classmates and wounded 23 others before turning their guns on themselves.
This is the latest and bloodiest of a string of similar nightmares that have taken place across the nation over the last 18 months, including Springfield, Oregon; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; Jonesboro, Arkansas; West Paducah, Kentucky; and Pearl, Mississippi. All involved young killers with guns and without self-restraint. Nearly everyone agrees that we have moved beyond the realm of mere coincidence, that there is some connection between these horrible events. But that’s where the agreement ends.
Even before all the details were known and the police had conducted their investigation, television reporters were looking to assign blame for the shootings. Once again, fingers pointed toward America’s "gun culture."
MSNBC’s Brian Williams summed up the conventional media wisdom in a comment to Suzann Wilson, the mother of a girl killed last year in Jonesboro. "I know you happen to believe that if we got the guns out of schools and out of the hands of younger Americans, say nothing of their parents and older Americans, if we stopped giving guns as Christmas gifts in some families in some parts of the country then perhaps this wouldn’t be as pervasive a problem."
He was not alone in this, and it’s easy to see why.
Each of these tragedies took place in regions where legal gun ownership is commonplace, and where youngsters are often taught about firearms.
But if the blame lay solely with "gun culture," one should expect this sort of violence to have happened throughout American history. Generations of Americans have grown up around guns without feeling at all compelled to commit multiple murder.
To the contrary, most young people who train today in the shooting sports learn excellence and discipline as they do in any sport. Kim Rhode of El Monte, California has practiced with firearms since she was in grade school. If guns really do cause violence, Kim should be in serious trouble with the law by now. Instead, at 17 she became the youngest woman in Olympic history to win a gold medal in a shooting sport.
If guns themselves don’t cause criminal behavior, another popular explanation is the long-term effects of violent television, movies, and video games.
Commenting on the Littleton shootings on Wednesday, President Clinton referred to violence in the media, and advised parents to "take this moment to ask what else they can do to shield our children from violent images and experiences that warp young perceptions and obscure the consequences of violence to show our children by the power of our own example how to resolve conflicts peacefully."
Good advice as far as it goes. But however debased our popular culture may be, simply pointing the finger at Hollywood is as unsatisfying as pointing the finger at gun makers or their owners. In fact, only a fraction of the millions of children exposed to TV violence go on to imitate the mayhem they have seen portrayed on the screen.
These explanations fail because they try to pin the blame for violence on something outside the individual—they deny that these young men are ultimately responsible for their own actions.
Blaming anything or anyone but the perpetrator himself has become the order of the day. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the infamous "twinkie defense" employed by the murderer of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. The accused could not be held responsible, his attorney argued, because he had consumed junk food.
Since that trial we have grown used to hearing that every action, good or evil, is not based on free will, but is the result of some exterior cause, be it too much TV, a bad family life, or access to a weapon. This is the result of a long-term philosophical shift away from the idea of human free will, and the results of that shift have now come home to roost with the children of the baby boom generation.
The good news is that we are finally recognizing the terrible consequences of this philosophy, as we see firsthand the results of a generation of moral neglect of our young people. Appalled by the lack of standards in public schools, parents are increasingly placing their children in private academies or church-sponsored schools where responsibility and morality can legally be taught. It took us a generation to trash the truth, and we will struggle just as long in coming to our moral senses as a nation.
In the meantime we can pass a law to ban guns, or place new ratings codes on TV, movies, and video games. But the former will only serve to redefine as criminals millions of previously law-abiding citizens, and the latter will do nothing to change what consumers want to buy. What law can remedy fatal character defects? By banning the "culture of guns" we will not stop teen murderers. But by rebuilding a culture of loving, moral guidance for our children, we will.
Timothy Wheeler, M.D.is the director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of The Claremont Institute.
Copyright 1999The Claremont Institute. Used by permission.