Are guns or society to blame? Lawmakers search for answers
April 23, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 23) -- In the wake of the latest incident of school violence, politicians continue to disagree over remedies, as some blame guns and want more controls others point the finger at a society that produces violent movies, TV programs and video games. Meanwhile, opinion polls show that Americans are deeply divided over the same issues.
The shooting at Littleton, Colorado's Columbine High School Tuesday again pushed the always-controversial intersection of politics and guns to the forefront of the national debate.
Gun advocates are once again forced to walk an uncomfortable line: grieving for the victims, while directing any blame away from the weapons themselves. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens opposes gun control. Talking to reporters in Littleton the day of the tragedy, Owens blamed the shooters' values -- not their guns -- for the killings.
"These are children who apparently don't have the same sorts of moral background that most of us would have. You just can't explain it. There is no simple explanation for why children, teen-agers, would go in and kill, or injure, other children," Owens said.
Minnesota's colorful governor, Jesse Ventura, made news early in his term by applying for a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Following the shootings in Colorado, he said that lives could have been saved if someone in the school had been carrying a concealed weapon.
Ventura said: "Let's remember that very often, if you were to have someone with a legitimate conceal and carry weapon, you can stop crimes like this from happening."
In fact, a security guard did have a weapon, and did fire it. Thursday, Ventura said he regretted making those remarks, and added that schools are no place for weapons.
The Clinton Administration plans to introduce an omnibus crime bill next week that resurrects several gun control proposals that have failed in the Republican-led Congress previously. Included in the package will be suggested restrictions on the purchases of assault weapons by juveniles, a major expansion of a federal program that traces used guns and a revived waiting period that was put in place, but later expired, by the so-called Brady handgun law.
In the Senate, meanwhile, more than 40 gun-control bills are pending, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) who is sponsoring one to ban the import and sale of ammunition magazines that hold 10 or more rounds.
"It is so easy to get them," Feinstein told CNN Thursday. "It is so easy to obtain a weapon in this society. There are no provisions for trigger locks, that should be a no-brainer. There are no regulations for safe storage of a weapon, particularly when children were around. That should be a no-brainer. These are common sense things that could be done to see that firearms at least are kept securely."
But even gun control advocates acknowledge that new laws aren't the only answer, and that cultural issues played a role in the shooting rampage.
Speaking Thursday night to a teachers' group in Niagara, New York -- a state in which she may run for the Senate -- first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said tragedies like the one in Colorado are caused in party by "the culture of violence infecting the lives of our children."
Pointing to graphic violence portrayed in some television programs, movies, video games and music, the first lady said: "There is just too much evidence children are desensitized. They lose empathy."
Mrs. Clinton acknowledged free speech problems in trying to regulate what's on the media.
"There are concerns over the First Amendment. We have to be careful how we navigate. I hope to be working with community groups to try and think of some betters ways we can take. We can no longer shut our eyes to the impact media is having on our children and the violenct impact it is having on some."
But she said she hopes to work with community groups to look at the impact of mass media on children.
The Columbine school shootings particularly illustrates the political problem faced by public figures who are torn between protecting public safety and preserving what many consider to be a constitutional right to own and use a gun.
No organization has felt the political weight of the tragedy more acutely than the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The organization has had minimal reaction to pledges from Democratic lawmakers that they will push again for further legislation restricting access to guns. "Right now the only appropriate response is one of grief and sorrow and prayers for the community and anything that extends beyond that right now is not appropriate," NRA spokesman Bill Powers said.
And the NRA had planned its three-day annual meeting next week, in Denver, complete with a splashy firepower exhibit. But after the Littleton shootings, the NRA sent a letter to members stating that with "... respect for the families and communities in the Denver area in their time of great loss," it would scale back the meeting to just one day.
However, that letter appeared after the NRA president, Charlton Heston, gave an interview blaming the parents of the shooters, and the permissive culture that had allowed them to wear black trench coats to school. But as far as Denver's Democratic mayor, Wellington Webb, is concerned, the NRA would do best just to stay away.
"The NRA should not come to Denver. They should use good common judgment and say that for the sake of these families, that we're going to cancel, and not come to a place where one, we're not wanted," Webb said.
Among presidential candidates, perhaps no one had stronger words on the killing than conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. To him, the incident was proof positive of the decline of American culture.
"What was it in our polluted and poisoned culture that suggested to these dead souls that violence, murder and suicide was a valid expression of their resentment," Buchanan said. "At Littleton, I believe America got a glimpse of the last stop on that train to hell, that reboarded decades ago when we declared that God is dead and that each of us is his or her own God who can make up the rules as we go along."
Where do Americans place the blame for such tragedies as the Littleton school shooting?
According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken Wednesday night, Americans blame the easy availability of guns more than any other single factor. Guns are followed by parents and popular entertainment. Very few blame the schools, the Internet or the news media. (Full poll numbers)
Those numbers breakdown slightly along gender lines. Women overwhelmingly blame what happened on the availability of guns; men much less so.
The issue is politically divisive as well. Democrats are the ones who blame the availability of guns overwhelmingly, Republicans much less so.
"It's not a gun control problem; it's a cultural control problem," Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a NRA board member, said.
How do young people feel about that? Among Americans under 30, very few say TV, movies and music are to blame -- certainly compared to Americans over 30 who are much more likely to blame pop culture. Young people say it's not the culture; it's the guns.
CNN's Judy Woodruff and Bill Schneider contributed to this report.
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