Children's anger lies at root gun problem

Posted: Apr 04, 2001 12:00 AM
Certain statistics grab you by the throat and leave you breathless, such as this one released Monday: One in five high school boys brought a weapon to school last year. If true, you don't wonder that the occasional student takes a bullet. You wonder why there aren't more casualties. With that kind of heat packed in pockets and backpacks, you have to figure any given hour at any given school holds the potential for a Sam Peckinpah revival. The statistics were provided by the California-based Josephson Institute of Ethics and are based on a 2000 national survey of some 15,000 teen-agers. The written questionnaires were administered among students at randomly selected middle and high schools around the country. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent. Other findings were equally disturbing: - One in three high school students say they are afraid at school; - Twenty-seven percent of middle schoolers and 31 percent of high schoolers say they think it's OK to hit or threaten a person; 70 percent have hit someone at least once in the past year. While it is probably irrational to be afraid at school - schools are still statistically safer than any other place children gather - it is entirely reasonable to say that the rising generation of young Americans has a little anger problem. As Michael Josephson, president and founder of the institute put it: "When one in three children feels unsafe at school, we think that's unacceptable. Something is deeply wrong." One could argue that children would feel safer if we didn't harp on statistics like the ones I've just regurgitated, and one would be partly right. The media frenzy that follows every teen toter's bully-revenge is almost a party invitation to the next slinger. But one could also argue correctly that fear is not entirely misplaced if, indeed, 21 percent of high school males are carrying a gun or a blade. The survey didn't specifically ask students to define "weapon," but conventional wisdom is that a weapon is a gun or knife, according to one of the researchers. Which weapon, though relevant to those whose palms begin to sweat at mention of guns, is relatively irrelevant to Josephson, who sees guns as instruments of a more serious malady. "This isn't about guns," he says. "This is about kids and character and the culture of violence." Not surprising words from the creator of the Character Counts! Coalition, a partnership of schools and other organizations that try to teach children to be more responsible through character-building curricula. Yet, even Josephson admits, the survey doesn't tell the whole story. We don't know precisely what weapons kids are taking to schools, whether in fact they are guns and knives or nail clippers and butter spreaders. Nor do we know which kids are carrying weapons. The institute didn't ask questions about race or family background because schools are reluctant to ask personal questions. Are we talking about kids from intact or broken families? Are we talking about children from homes where they're abused and neglected, or where they're coddled and overindulged. It probably doesn't matter, says Josephson. "Happy" little yuppie children, from prosperous, dual-parent families are as likely as anyone to suffer from advanced "self-esteemia," the narcissistic notion that life (and death) flow through oneself even at the expense of other lesser lives. What does matter is that we have a generation of children who don't know how to handle simple obstacles (bullies) or inevitable failures (rejection), and who, owing to their culture of violence, delusions of self-grandeur and habit of instant gratification, are comfortable resorting to the quickest remedy. So, no, guns aren't the problem. A March 1994 Department of Justice study ("Urban Delinquency And Substance Abuse") shows, in fact, that boys raised with legally owned guns are less likely to be delinquent and to resort to violence. But anger, and our failure to teach self-control, is a huge problem. Which alone is sufficient cause for fear.