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Fourth in a series of articles about meaning and characterization

Children With Guns


Copyright 1998, Dorian Scott Cole

Why? | Impact? | The search for the problem | What can we do? | Implications for writers
Comments  | Futuristic story | References

Why this article?

The rash of eight nine school shootings across the nation has left questions hanging in the air like a bad smell. Why did they do it? How can we make it stop? 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1997, 1997, 1998, 1998, 1998 (first half)...... - if statistics are an indication, the incidents could be increasing at an exponential rate. Will the problem get a lot worse before we can find an effective solution?

How are children with guns part of a series on using meaning with characterization? It is an opportunity to talk about development of character and morals. It is an opportunity to talk about what goes wrong in finding meaning, which is relevant to character motivation. And it is an opportunity to briefly touch on childhood development, which can have some impact on adult life. It's an opportunity to touch on the responsibility of writers. At the end is a brief story that illustrates some of these things, and illustrates why I am concern with what kind of world we are building for ourselves. As with most of my articles, although it is relatively unbiased and broadly researched, it isn't meant to be an expert opinion - it is meant to be provocative for those who write - a place to start thinking. There have been recent television episodes (Promised Land) and many TV news shows. In this commentary, the facts and studies are accurate, and my opinion is based on experience, however I am not an expert.

Quick and easy answers

When things become high profile, immediately the news media and public want quick and easy answers. "Here's a problem and we should be able to identify the cause and fix it. There has to be one cause that is creating the problem." I see evidence that the press is tiring of not having found an easy answer and is narrowing the field of answers to favorites. You and I are sure to be affected.

Parents are usually the primary targets - "You've failed!" - and a load of guilt is cast on parents which is not only mentally burdensome but also creates an extra burden on time as parents try to make up for some perceived neglect. During any high profile event, every expert with a cause lines up to beat his drum and give advice. While most of them recommend worthwhile actions, I seriously doubt that most have put their finger on the real cause. As you will see in this article, the focus of a child's and young adult's world is not the adult world, and as I have said in other articles on this web site, parents ability to influence children is not as good as parents and the finger pointers would like to think. I have put a helpful hint at the end.


How will this change the world we live in, and what impact will that have on us? Like sand building in an hour-glass, sooner or later the cumulative impact of reactions to several things will be major. Do we react in protectionist ways out of fear, or in a proactive way toward more positive solutions? There may be tighter gun control. There may be closer scrutiny in the schools and more interference in the homes. Depends on what we target to blame. The results will either improve the situation or allow it to get worse and be generally more restrictive of us all.

In testimony before Congress, the Executive Director of the National School Safety Center offered over 50 (that I counted) action points for the Congress, schools, and local communities. The ideas sounded like they came from sound research. They also sounded like a security official's wishlist: "Here is what is wrong with the world and here are all the rules people should follow." Action is music to the public's and Congress's ears, but judging from past social efforts, we would be lucky to accomplish two of those 50 + points in ten years.

The search for the "problem"

The news media is showing the wearying impact on it, and on the audience, as the stories suddenly raise their ugly head and demand the press say something instructive. Producers, writers, and commentators strain to find answers and become more and more focused on selected issues that may show their own polarization or just the fact that the answers are difficult and they are clutching at straws. A recent ABC News Nightline presentation (Thursday, May 21, 1998) after the latest shooting began with the question, is this a moral breakdown or part of a gun culture? I have immense respect for Ted Koppel, but I'm surprised that he chose to limit the answers to just those two possibilities.

On the Friday, June 5, 1998 20/20 news magazine, John Stossel, who I regard as one of the least biased and most open investigators and commentators and who is himself a parent of young children, obviously began second guessing himself. He had previously reported on male/female differences and concluded that there are major biological determinants of behavior. Boys and girls are naturally different. But the June 5 show contained a story about male child development that asked, are we parents (and society) creating problems by not encouraging boys to talk about their feelings? Do we mold their behavior with different responses and expectations. John second-guessed and overlooked that sex differences begin showing up at age 2 to 3, boys are more likely to instigate rough behavior, girls have generally superior verbal abilities and are more likely to talk things out, while boys seek active solutions to problems, girls never go onto campus carrying a rifle and threatening to shoot everyone... John wavered and another parade of psychologists who are committed to the "talking and feeling" cause and cure came into our living rooms just in case they might know the answer. The pendulum of public effort might once again begin swinging in that direction while we flounder with looking for answers to high profile events.

I agree that male children and young adults should be encouraged to talk about their feelings, and should even have special forums for that, and that it might prevent some violent episodes. I encourage it. We need to convince children early that acting out is not acceptable and that when they feel like acting out they need to talk to others about the things that bother them. But I would be careful about labeling something like this as a cause and cure of behavior, and I would be careful about expecting parents and school systems to be able to carry this out. We have to differentiate between what is theoretically possible with the best of counselors and the best of counselees, and what is probable in reality. Most parents, teachers, and psychologists fail at reaching troubled teens. Working with troubled teens isn't an event, it's a long and turbulent journey that fortunately usually ends well, but often doesn't. Is talking about feelings really the miracle cure?

A number of theories have already risen to prominence and gone. One theory that clung tenaciously was that the recent school shootings were a "Southern problem." A gun culture out of control. Guns are too available and Southerners like to use guns to get what they want. But it is a stereotype that southerners like their guns more than anyone else - many groups and areas like guns and some like violent solutions. And the balance of shootings has been in the North. Popular ideas - polarizing and destructive ideas - with potentially damaging repercussions, but incorrect ideas.

Another easy target is the glamorization of guns in the entertainment business. Guns in entertainment are a constant source of amusement for me. Fifteen people walk on screen with automatic weapons, the air is clouded with lead for several minutes, then everyone walks away. It can't happen - it's escapism. At the end of the movie the bad guys have lost. Not much there for rebels to identify with. Yes, many movies are very violent. I do think that violent movies are part of the mental world of some violent people. People who are violent probably also like boxing, apples, sex, mothers, and a host of other things that aren't the cause of their behavior although some might be a reflection of it. Once again, correlation doesn't mean cause and effect.

But most people, even people who look to violence for answers, know the difference between movie violence and reality where one can't institute the same answers. Not many people jump off buildings with Batman capes on their shoulders. The difference between fantasy and reality is an easy differentiation for sane people. Although young people do have difficulty distinguishing "the way they want the world to be" from how it really is. Young people are very idealistic and don't realize the steps that it takes to change things. They can imagine a big event having much more impact on the world than it does. They can imagine shooting a bunch of people and then escaping into the woods for the rest of their lives. But these things are a failure to fully comprehend what they don't know and haven't experienced, not a failure to distinguish reality from fantasy. This point will be clarified later, but movie violence is not reality.

Movies have a relationship to life, but a subtle one. Movies reflect life, but life reflects art in a more considered way. I think that movies more often reflect life and present resolutions that give hope. Movies aren't about modeling violent behavior as a source of answers, they are about the ultimate answers in life - good ultimately triumphs over evil, we ultimately can triumph over our obstacles - that is the feeling that is carried away. Evil gets destroyed or removed. Both the cumulative effect and the spontaneous effect are the same - to remind us that victory is achievable no matter what the means.

If the media is a problem, I think it is more likely that people are imitating what they see in the news, not the movies. It isn't happening in the movies. These incidents are so rare by percentage of population that they may be "copycat" incidents. The fact that it happened somewhere, and got national attention, basically opens the gates to additional incidents. The seed is planted. The incident becomes a recognized way of attacking what bothers you. It wasn't a rational solution before - not an action that was open to people's thoughts - not something you saw in a fictional movie - but now having seen it happen in real life, it becomes a solution. The media, instead of reporting it as a single news story or a local story, dwells on the story for days as if it was the most newsworthy story of an era.

Another problem, one of the interviewees in the ABC News coverage remarked that, "The world is evil." According to some mental models of the world, the world is an evil place that can't be changed and will be destroyed. Armageddon. Are these shootings a warning, a prelude to Armageddon? If we are fatalists and choose to do nothing about this and other problems, it could be. I personally don't believe that humanity will be that complacent. Yet the challenge is bigger than just fighting obvious evil. Some things require proactive (prescriptive) solutions.

Moral problem?

Is the problem a moral problem? Right and wrong are somehow blurred? Are children somehow learning violent answers to problems? These are very complicated issues, but they aren't insurmountable. Children and adults can be in any stage of moral development, and most children do have major problems with moral reasoning.

Lawrence Kohlberg conducted extensive studies in moral development and moral reasoning. He tested in many diverse cultures and found that human beings go through the same very predictable and identifiable stages of moral development - except that many get stuck in one stage or another. Three of the more important things (to me) that Kohlberg and others discovered are that 1) as people begin to transition into successive phases they go through a time of relativism in which they realize that the truths they thought were concrete are really relative to other things. After passing through they are once again solid in their beliefs. 2) Experience is essential to the development of perspective, which is essential to growth or the ability to make moral judgments. And 3) Moral reasoning is somewhat dependent on children's cognitive growth. Without certain cognitive developments, children are not able to have the perspective necessary to judgment.

Kohlberg isn't without critics. Kohlberg identified six stages of moral development. In the sixth stage only God and a few world leaders have been identified. There may be doubt about God - following a few reported knee jerk reactions, and supposedly allowing nature to run wild and kill millions of people, and having been accused of all kinds of insensitive actions by many people experiencing pain, rumors of favoritism are loudly proclaimed by many of the select group... or another select group, and judging from the conduct of some of His followers... well the jury is still out. Maybe none of us understand stage seven, the God stage that even Kohlberg didn't document :). Kohlberg ceased testing and documenting even for the sixth stage. But how Kohlberg arrived at what is moral and what is not may not jive with what we who are in phase one consider moral. Who is the judge?

Kohlberg's idea of morality is based to some extent on principles. Principles may be very relative to different cultures. Some principles are higher than others - law conflicts with love, and love with law. They have different purposes. Most people are not able to uphold principles in the face of torture and duress. How are judgments under those conditions to be judged? And I know from working with attitude that people can have intellectual knowledge that they should act one way, but judgment is easily overshadowed by emotion and self-interest. One might answer a hypothetical question one way, but in reality do something entirely different. Action follows primarily from emotion, not knowledge. Plus, other researchers have found that even though children aren't always able to work with hypothetical situations, their communications with others and their behavior often show they have a much deeper knowledge. But even in the face of criticism, Kohlberg's idea of morality and the identifiable stages of growth that each of us inevitably experience are ones that most of us would generally support. Moral development is basically about continuously developing a broader perspective that includes both an ever expanding group of people, and a wider view of social justice and the regulation of behavior.

So to the question of children with guns relative to moral issues, from the research of Kohlberg, Piaget, Erickson, and others, we can see that children have at least six major problems with moral reasoning. These reasons are:

1) Kohlberg showed that people complete a phase before moving to the next phase. Sorry, no testing out of grades. It isn't possible for people to properly make the moral choices characteristic of a later phase while still in a previous phase. They have to complete their experiential work before moving on. So in a group of ten to eighteen-year-olds, in stage 1 and 2, which is characterized by a very egocentric adherence to rules to avoid consequences, you would find 80% of the ten-year-olds and about 18% of those age sixteen to eighteen. This stage lasts a lifetime for some people, but most people change. By age 22, you would find 90% of the group in stage 3 and 4, which is characterized by a growing understanding of social justice like rights and fairness, but only 22% of those of age ten would be in stage 3 or 4. At age 24, some of these people become concerned about social contract and principles, stage 5, but most do not go there. Note the wide disparity in the ability to make moral judgments for people in any age group.

At about the age of 10-11, children enter a transitional phase, and enter a very relativistic stage. They begin to see a bit of reality about the rules they live by. They begin to realize that rules are kind of arbitrary and relative. Breaking rules can be justified. Other things need to be taken into account, like equal justice, circumstances, and even the other person's point of view and feelings. In fact, at this point the adult world and its opinions begins to fade in importance and the world of their peers and peer opinion becomes preeminent (changing influence is debatable, it doesn't seem to happen in all children, but I saw it in my own children). Note that mentally a child's world makes major changes at this point, and note that the child is in a transitional phase and going into a relativist stage which is a time when behavior can be very unpredictable.

So children in the 11 to 16 age group are trapped at some earlier phase of development, and are possibly at a transitional stage in which their decisions may be very unpredictable. Although we look at them as if they were able to understand moral things, they simply are not able to have an adult perspective on moral issues.

2) A second problem is that children can often speak to moral principles, but when put to the test they are unable to see beyond their own needs. There are two major reasons for this. One is that they may not have developed the capacity to see things from other's perspective. Although this ability may be developing, their cognitive anchor is still very much themselves. I had hoped to be a father who would discuss things with his children and help them see other's points of view and see the consequences of doing things. This has been shown to be effective in helping children to be more helpful and considerate. It wasn't possible, partly because attitude is more motivating than knowledge, and partly because children want what they want, and they don't have the experience to emotionally comprehend other's perspectives and consequences. There are very few "finalities" in life at this age. Whatever they decide at the moment, another moment follows for another choice. Tomorrow is another day. When my children were teens, talking to them about perspectives and consequences was still frequently beyond their grasp. What they wanted overshadowed everything. But it does work with some children.

3) A third problem is that experience is central to some stages of moral development. Interestingly, not only did Kohlberg find very few people in stage six, he also found essentially no people in stage five before the age of 24. People at 24 virtually unanimously fail to comprehend finality and long term consequences of moral choices. Judgment in this area requires experience making and living with the consequences of choices, and having had the sustained responsibility of the welfare of others. The "attitude" at this point in people's lives is that life is still wide open. There is still time to change your life situation (and there is, of course). Other studies of adult development show that it is around age 27 to 30 when men finally take their commitments seriously and make them long term. Prior to this they are still trying their tentative life situation to see if it fits, making adjustments, dumping, trying new things... Life and experience are about certain things to people at different points in life, and perspective is very subject to those age and developmental issues.

Studies have shown that experience can mean having the experienced modeled for them by a teacher, peer, parent, or other person. Experience can also mean having been put in the position of making similar moral choices. It is wrestling with issues in real life that makes it possible for people to grasp the meaning of things both intellectually and emotionally. This is what forms attitude.

Just as importantly, wrong choices are also just as determining a factor as right choices. We make right choices just as much out of modeling, learning, and habit as we do from comprehensive understanding and experience. The same for wrong choices. If Johnny learns to use violence as his first line of action, then violence is what Johnny will continue to use and unfortunately will be all that Johnny knows. Here is where the line begins to blur some between morality and reality. If Johnny is violent, Johnny's experience with the world and what Johnny considers to be possible may not jive at all with other's expectations. Since Johnny may have limited ability to see from other's perspective, and experience doesn't jive with reality, morality may be as valid to Johnny as a fairy tale.

4) Biology also plays a distinct and nearly determinative role. I have also stated before on this web site that when it comes to freewill and determinism, children are primarily deterministic - that is mechanistic beings with limited ability to choose their own path forward. They are driven to a large extent by their needs and feelings. Freewill is something that is learned continuously throughout life by those who accept responsibility. Don't accept responsibility, no real freedom of choice. Mankind is very much driven by attitude, with little thought about one's own behavior. If one is doing what one "feels" like, where is the problem. One feels in control, has the illusion of control, but one doesn't realize that one is a machine, driven by instinct. Some children are biologically influenced to react in physical and violent ways. This has been correlated with testosterone levels. Extensive studies of prison populations have also demonstrated biochemical problems, showing that some people are overly sensitive to some chemicals while others don't absorb metabolically the right chemicals even when they are present. Biology is often a strongly influential factor. If it can be recognized early, then people can learn to compensate for and control their behavior, and often can control their environment to reduce those influences.

Are these children sociopaths or psychopaths? These children and young adults who have done these incidents appear to be socially and emotionally isolated from others. This is a characteristic of part of the prison population - antisocial and sociopaths - who don't can't seem to relate to other people. Biological factors may be a determinant in this as well. However, these children appear to be strongly motivated by feelings - I doubt that they are unfeeling sociopaths. They have just been made isolated and numbed by their treatment and perceptions.

5) Another problem is with feedback that violent children get from others which reinforces their developing image of themselves. This reinforcement that they are violent children elicits additional violent behavior. People expect them to act and react violently, so they do. Another way in which violent children get feedback is through the way they are treated. Others see them as violent and react more physically toward them.

6) Paranoia (perspective, not neurosis or psychosis) is another problem. Children who are hostile tend to view the world as a hostile place and interpret other's actions as meant to harm them.

Too much preoccupation with all the wrong things can make one begin to believe that there is a danger when there isn't. Is the world a dangerous place that requires one to own a gun and practice shooting? What do you and I believe about the world at the moment? Suddenly we are confronted by young children going to school and killing students and people in mass. We are worried that this will happen to our own children. The news media gets stuck on these incidents like flies on fly paper. Sensationalism sells and is easily justified. But the reality is, these incidents happen very infrequently and statistically the chances of something happening to someone close to use is much less than our chance of winning most lotteries. We are easily influenced by this kind of thinking - how much more so are impressionable children? Since children are so impressionable and easily led, it is much easier for them to become preoccupied with paranoid thinking, especially if they are predisposed to do so because they already interpret everything as intended to harm them.

7) Another major problem is a failure to create an integrated identity, including a past and future. Add to this the physical changes they are undergoing, and that they have now probably developed the cognitive ability to see themselves as they imagine others see them. Their identity may often be no more than the imagined reflection from others. Others see them as bad, so lacking any real personality development and integration, they see themselves as from the other's point of view. Forming an identity is critical. This is sometimes prevented by problems with sexual identity, abuse, not feeling that one has a place or is of much value, and not being able to see a future. These things can lead to isolation and prevent the child from forming solid relationships with others. People who are emotionally isolated from others are unable to relate to other people. Some of the young adults who did the shooting appear to be emotionally isolated, both from themselves and others. Some don't know why they did the killings, and they feel no remorse.

These seven reasons, 1) inability to take a mature perspective, 2) inability to see from other's perspective, 3) lack of experience in making moral choices, 4) experience and reinforcement in making the wrong choices, 5) biological influences, 6) paranoia, 7) environmental reinforcement to react in inappropriate ways, and 8) failure to form an identity to the point of becoming isolated and troubled - OK 8 reasons - may weigh heavily on a child who suddenly is confronted with a situation that he hasn't developed appropriate ways of dealing with, and he can see a violent way of resolving.

What these children seem to be saying is that, "Make the world understand that they can't treat me this way - there is a price to pay. I'll make my point in a way that my world and the entire world can't hide from."

These are children some of whom were one day going to Church or who had adult and family friendships, but who had trouble with one specific part of their world. A very important part of their world. Remember in the preceding the focus of their world changing from adults to peers? Sometimes there had been abuse or other difficulty as a backdrop to their frustration. Remember in the preceding the affects of sexual identity problems or not having a place or value? Mostly they had exhibited delinquent and violent tendencies. Children who are judged by others to be violent tend to be that way for long periods of time and are more likely to end up in jail by age 30. These were children who were reported to be bullies or tended toward violence and violent answers - they were emotionally isolated from others and probably did not know of any other ways to resolve their problems. They brought the trouble back to that one specific part of their world where they had the most peers, where they had the most opportunity to build or erode self-esteem, where there were expectations and situations they couldn't control, and where there were problems they couldn't resolve. That's the world where they chose to make their point. The significance of that shouldn't be missed. They didn't choose to go to their church or local gun club or basketball game to make their point. They went to their schools.

Was it a moral decision? These kids all planned their action. It was premeditated - which doesn't mean it was thought through, it only means that the children planned it for hours or days - it was a decision, not a spontaneous event. But did morality enter the decision making process? Right and wrong? That's a no-brainer. But could it have been a sense of an individual right balanced against a perceived great injustice in which many share the guilt, with no foreseeable resolution? Very possibly.

At the age of 11 to 16, young adults are seeing that rules are relative. A sense fairness begins to dominate moral decisions. I have to laugh when remembering my own children's acute sense of fairness as children. If one got something, the other had to get something - usually the same thing. Of course, if one got punished, the rule no longer applied. Young adults remain very self-oriented when they are the ones who have to bear the suffering that comes from justice. At stages one and two, 70% of children will cheat to give themselves better results, compared with 55% of those in stages 3 and 4, and only 15% in stage 5. Remember the attitude example? During a time of transition, (both cognitive/moral and biological), or anytime during these stages, the young person could make very unexpected decisions. Young people who don't know how to make the appropriate moral decision are likely to make very bad ones.

More importantly, these young adults have the same basic deep values (represented by emotional needs) that the rest of us have: to be loved, to love, to be needed, to be respected, to have a place, to have a value... I'm not talking about being "misunderstood," I'm talking about a failure to realize the most basic and necessary values. Then if a young adult has not learned ways of coping with things, has not learned good ways of acting and reacting (behavior), has learned an attitude of violent response as a way of resolving issues, and has not learned to take responsibility for his actions, then this person is likely to react very mechanistically to his needs and the situation, and morality 101 pales in comparison.

I think the most salient point we can take away from this is that when we as a society and as individuals avoid the responsibility of treating others as a welcome part of our world or group, and fail to help individuals see and learn nonviolent responses, and fail to help them learn moral decision making, and fail to encourage them to take responsibility for themselves, we reap the results.

What can we do?

Here are my two cents:

1. Be alert to danger signs.

2. Teach our children to expect nonviolent behavior from others, and to encourage nonviolent behavior.

3. Talk openly and often about nonviolent ways to handle situations.

4. Try to include rather than ostracize young people - it makes all the difference in the world.

Some of the answers are more difficult. They depend very much on the type of world we want to create for ourselves. I'm not a proponent of social engineering. I use that term to refer to the control and manipulation of people by eliminating all the choices except the one you want them to have. Choices are essential to a free world - to learning freedom and responsibility. One can't learn to be responsible and gain the skills needed to live in a free world without having the experience of making choices. On the other hand, children can't make informed and intelligent choices until they have developed to the point they can handle them. Many of the wrong choices need to be out of reach until the child has developed. As parents, my wife and I soon learned that a house can have too many "No's" for a toddler. It is better to put the fine things out of reach until the child can handle them (twenty-seven seems to be the age : ).

Do the facts support the idea that these young adults have become isolated and unable to realize their search for the deep human values that we all try to realize? Have they made bad choices that have taken them in this direction? Have these deep needs and bad choices resulted in disaster? Following are a couple of examples:

Luke Woodham, 16, responsible for the Oct. 1, 1997 attack, felt like an outcast at school. For a while he had found "acceptance" in a classmate, but he and his girlfriend broke up. He was devastated. Feeling estranged from the God fearing world, he found acceptance again through an older friend in a Satan worshipping group. There he found support for his purpose of revenge. He ultimately chose to kill his mother and ex-girfriend, and shot eight others.

Mitchell Johnson, 13, (and Andrew Golden, 11) in a well planned sniper like attack killed 15 in April, 1998. Johnson, who apparently identified with gangs, is from a divorced home and lived with his mother. He was teased about his weight, cultivated an aggressive attitude, and became a bully. He obviously could not feel accepted by others and chose to use force (bully) his way to acceptance. He was known to make death threats and had fired guns toward other's houses. Days before the attack he was refused a date by a girl he had romantic feelings for. Days before he was also in Church. He then chose to go to the school and shoot his girl-friend and fourteen others. It appears he consistently chose the wrong way to express his feelings and to pursue his values. It doesn't look like he could have ended any other way (without someone helping him find better choices).

Mike Carneal, 14, vented his anger on students, killing three in December of 1997. He was a physically small youth, a misfit, and his essays indicate he felt weak, powerless, and picked on. He had been teased all of his life. He may have been angry at God for his plight also. He professed not to believe in God, but he went to a school prayer meeting before class and opened fire.

Seventeen-year old Evan Ramsey decided to "shoot up" his school. This apparently followed a long period of racial rivalry with a fellow student.

Barry Loukaitis, 14, was treated to his mother telling him of plans to kill herself in front of her ex-husband and his new girlfriend. The family apparently had a history of depression. Loukaitis apparently had an affinity for a Pearl Jam song in which a teenager killed his classmates. He also possilby took ideas from the book Rage and the movie Natural Born Killers. Loukaitis chose what he identified with.

Kipland Kinkel, 15, thought it would be fun to kill someone. He had been previously arrested for throwing rocks at cars from an overpass - an act sure to kill, but he failed. He found his chance. He was expelled for bringing a gun to school and trying to sell guns at school. The next day, after killing his parents, he came back for revenge, leaving 2 dead and 22 seriously injured. He had once been voted “most likely to start World War III.” He remained calm during the shootings, during the arrest, and during the arraignment. Unlike the others, Kinkel has the marks of a sociopath.

Other answers:

Gun control: These children tried to break into safes to get guns. Failing that, they stole them from others. A person who feels that guns are a potential means of expression is going to be alert to where guns are available. We know from experience that if people can't get their hands on a gun, they will make one, or make bombs. But that overshadows the fact that if guns are much less available, fewer people will be killed with them. More people can escape a knife or a handgun than someone wielding a rifle with sites and an endless supply of guns and ammunition. Children are killed every day by guns that are kept within their reach, and adults kill other adults every day by guns that are readily available. At minimum, people with guns need to practice gun control, and the education on this issue needs to be graphic, emotional, and high profile (high impact).

Fortress: Do we want our public institutions to be fortresses with security levels the same as criminal institutions? Same for our homes? Should visitors be searched? Is there really any secure zone? If someone puts up an obstacle, most young minds are immediately trying to outsmart it. It isn't even possible to keep weapons out of prisons. Much of juvenile violence happens off the school grounds, so it isn't reported in the same way. Would metal detectors at school doors have been any help against a sniper shooting into schoolgrounds from a hillside?

Information and mind control: You are what you feed your mind. Dwelling on certain things can lead people to use those things. Very true. Perceive the world as gun packing, become more and more paranoid, and that mentality feeds on itself. But should we prevent violent movies from being shown? Should we remove those choices from the people who choose to overemphasize them? If that is the direction they have chosen to go, they will get the movies one way or another, the movies will probably be much worse, and they will feed on them.

Learning better ways: I'm not so naive as to think that knowledge is an answer to many problems involving human motivation. Attitude dictates otherwise - emotions rule. So lecturing people or studying textbooks about moral judgments is doomed before it can ever begin. However there are experiential teaching methods that do work. That is, methods that emphasize an element of experience. Just modeling the situation and the effective choice can work. For example, modeling behavior, or acting a situation, or role playing, or a movie followed by a discussion - all are effective at teaching some young people to make effective choices for resolving moral situations. I don't know if it is effective with troubled kids - I suspect that this can help some. It hopefully can help some troubled young adults to not feel so isolated. But a young person who feels isolated can't turn to others to work out their problems.

Kohlberg's studies indicated that moral decisions tend to be made in the context of group norms, and improving the moral atmosphere of the group improved individual moral decisions.


The role of cultural expectations: I have mentioned before on this web site that if we don't expect good behavior from youth, then they won't deliver. Young people will get away with whatever is permitted. Rules are viewed as relative things, and they are enforced only when necessary. They are only beginning to understand.

Environment and cultural expectations are very influential. For example, everyone is familiar with the picture of the hard, street-wise kid into drugs and prostitution, who looks and acts like he is physically forty-years old. Studies have shown that children who are forced to survive in a demanding adult world do mature earlier physically. Young girl's reproductive systems mature years earlier than their counterparts in less demanding environments. Mentally it is the same with responsibility and with moral reasoning. Those who are asked to be responsible become responsible and learn how to be responsible much earlier. Making moral decisions was shown in Kohlberg's and other's studies to be the key to growth.

Culture is both a macrocosm and a microcosm. At one extreme there is the larger world that constantly bombards us with messages and seems to have the weight of authority. At the other extreme are our parents, peers, and others in a close circle of influential people and situations. If everyone at school is a threat and carries a weapon, then the world is a very unsafe place and the only way to protect yourself is to carry a weapon for defense. "Check your guns as you enter Dodge."

Trees: Aesthetic things significantly and sometimes dramatically reduce violence. A recent study by the University of Illinois compared the violence in urban housing developments without trees to those with trees. The incidence of violence in the areas with trees was considerably less.

Stress: "They made me do it!" We all face a certain amount of rejection, conflict, difficulty, loss of loved ones, and despair. It is what we learn or choose to do about these things that is the difference between us. It has a lot to do with those we identify with, which reveals the basic direction we are going. It depends a great amount on our basic approach to achieving our values. Are we protective and react out of fear? Or are we proactive about reaching values in a positive way.

Summary: children are only at a stage of development, and each stage is incomplete. Their unfinished business is like fishing lines with hooks cast in all directions looking for something to snag. Many things must be tried by them to see if it completes them. At the critical ages of 10 to 14, they have other critical physical issues to contend with, which confuses everything. They lack the experience to prove moral values to understand them comprehensively, so moral values are simply stuck on them like sticky notes. They may know right and wrong like memorized lists, but they have few tools with which to value them because they have little experience. Experience making decisions is what they need in order to grow. They lack the reality checks most adults have, so they are easily led and deceived by others and even by their own thoughts. They are still very much testing reality - trying to find its limits - until well into college. Young people keep looking for something to knock their socks off. This testing is epitomized by the young adult saying, "Is that all there is?" But each of us have choices, and if there are contributing factors, if nothing else we have the ability to choose the direction we are going - either toward good or toward what is harmful to others and evil. Each of these young people seems to have consistently made the wrong choices, and each of us are ultimately responsible for our own behavior, whether we choose to accept responsibility or not.

The implications for writers

Writers and morals. The news and entertainment industries are very competitive businesses. Unique stories sell. The "new" sells. The public has a right to know and the media is quick to point to the Freedom of Speech Amendment. The press has a "responsibility" to report the news that the public has a right to know, and if one reporter or writer doesn't another will so the fiercest competitor wins. Censorship is the work of the devil and the enemy of freedom. In all that high talk about responsibility and rights there is no conception of a responsibility and a right to not report, or at least not overreport news that potentially could have a damaging effect. How can there be responsibility in one area, but not in another? Very self-serving. What if none of these mass killings at schools would have happened if the press had not reported, or overreported, any of them. I believe writers have a responsibility, a moral choice, to avoid sensational and inflammatory stories. For example, if I know of a unique way to commit a robbery, I don't publicize it in a story for others to copy, even if it would get me a coveted story sale.

Finding meaning: During stage 2 of moral development, children often become very idealistic and very critical of themselves and others. They are often openly very harsh in their criticism during this time. No one can live up to their expectations. They form exclusive cliques and exclude others - actually everyone. They are often cruel to others. When we set our expectations too high, too exacting, too perfectionist, no one can attain them and we all fail. There are no perfect human beings - we all belong to a club of imperfect beings. Neither is life perfect. When we expect too much from life we usually fail to find what we are looking for and miss the daily people and events that compose the subtle beauty of it. I heard an interview (June 8, 1998) with Ringo Starr, the drummer for the former Beatles rock group, who (Ringo) had just released a new CD. Was he disappointed that what he had done with his life was bang a drum? No, he likes banging a drum and he likes playing with a group, making their music, having fun. He was asked if there was anything he would say to the old group if he could talk to them back in time. Yes, to those inside and outside the group, "lighten up". Everyone took it all far too seriously. I think it is often that way with our stories and characters.

Symbols: As I read the news stories I noticed that the kids involved often expressed externally what they identify with, by their possessions, clothes, attitudes, hobbies and pursuits. Some owned guns and practiced regularly. One went on his shooting spree wearing camouflage clothing and had camping gear stowed in his stolen vehicle. But these symbols aren't universal - it isn't likely we can determine what the symbol means, except in a general way. Some wear camouflage clothing because it is popular and unique, some because it is macho, some because it identifies them with survivalists, some because it identifies them with the military, etc. But these symbols are a way of enhancing characters by revealing them externally through their "things" and actions.

Helpful hint regarding remaining an influence with your children: Studies in attitude change and my experience indicate that some methods are better for attitude change than others. I usually target change that is experiential so that it will become internalized by the person. Most people want to feel that they have freedom to choose for themselves and that their decisions aren't forced by others. This isn't always possible with children, but you can phrase things so that they at least have the freedom to decide for themselves what they want to do, whether they are permitted or not. The other very important thing is that people be given both sides of an issue, not just a one-sided account. If they believe you have fairly given both sides, then they are more likely to remain in your camp. (Actually it is a bit more complicated than that.) Studies showed that college students were more likely to remain loyal to family values when this approach was taken.

Statistics: Although the nationwide chances of any individual child being killed in a mass killing spree at a school is extremely low, there are other violence oriented factors to consider. Across the nation, out of school, three times as many youth are victims of violence as adults, and youth commit most of the crime. Additionally ten percent of high school students report having taken a dangerous weapon to class within the last thirty days, and about as many, eight percent, report having been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. Crimes are more likely to happen after school off school property. While the national arrest rate for juveniles committing murder has decreased, rural rates have dramatically increased (55% in a 5 year period). And regarding the relation of guns to crime, regionally, while guns are present in the South in 48% of households compared to 36% for the rest of the country, the murder rate is only slightly higher than in the West.

Welcome? Whether or not to include children with behavior problems (especially delinquency) into a peer or organized group is always a difficult question. If I err, I have tended to err on the side of including them. Parents fear that the children will be a bad influence and one rotten apple will spoil the barrel. If the young people are marginally able to make moral decisions, that can happen. It can also happen if the troublemaker is charismatic. But usually no one wants to be around "the problem" so I think the influence tends to run the other way. It is an opportunity for children to gain perspective and make moral judgments, and to have a positive affect on others. In organized groups, the presence of an adult has usually been sufficient to prevent trouble.

I think there are categories (I hate categorizing) of troubled kids that require more vigilant guard. Kids who have no real problems but just tend to be biologically or mentally predisposed to be disruptive and physical probably can be assimilated into groups and the positive attention can be beneficial if they can be taught to control their behavior. Children with deeper emotional problems that come from abuse, divorce, or other problems can probably be assimilated (this reminds me of the Borg on Star Trek, assimilating people) into groups if they are also getting professional help with fitting in, with making moral decisions, and with whatever is motivating his behavior. If he has received a big message that he is worthless, this acts as a block to fulfilling his values.Without counseling, the troubled youth may never be able to perceive (or accept) other's positive regard and may soon leave the group.

It takes special groups and special training to work with and benefit more difficult people. The success of attempts by professionals to help young male prostitutes trapped in homosexuality rapidly dwindles with the amount of time the young man has been involved. In a very short time the success rate drops to zero.

In violent urban neighborhoods, programs that have been used to bring troubled youth together have sometimes been considered more damaging than helpful. With those groups, intense police crackdowns have been very effective, and a Boston police effort is being used as a model.

I think it is especially important that young people (and everyone) realize that cruelty to others is a factor in bringing this kind of behavior out in others. Some people are very hard to like and to exist with, and even though it isn't necessary to befriend everyone we don't like and drag them around with us (we don't do that with the entire world of likable people either), we should avoid being critical, shunning, and excluding them from activities in which everyone can share. A little friendship goes a long way. But once people begin to feel included they begin to have expectations that they will be more included, and not including them is difficult. Be prepared to keep portions of your world shielded. "See you later," is a lot better exit than "I have to go run around with my friends now."



A futuristic story about current trends (in screenplay format)


The year is 200X. We are visiting a normal American family home. JOHN, the Dad, is standing and eating toast, briefcase at his side, obviously in a hurry to get out the door. MARGARET, the Mother, flies into the kitchen, obviously upset.


John, go up stairs and get your son out of bed.
He refuses to get up.


Give me some ammunition here.
Why is he refusing to get up?


Ammo. So intuitive. He is afraid his
younger brother is going to shoot him.


Horsefeathers. Stuart wouldn't hurt a flea.
Those guns are just a phase.

STUART, a twelve-year-old boy, marches into the kitchen looking like a military killing machine. Combat boots, camouflage gear, a knife strapped to one boot, a forty-five on his hip, an AK47 automatic combat rifle with night scope slung over his shoulder, a grenade on his chest and two ammunition belts slung over his neck. He is struggling to stand straight with the ammo belts, and is putting on camouflage paint on his face.


Who is taking me to school? I'm ready.


Don't you think that's a bit much?

His brother, LAWRENCE, edges warily into the room, still wearing pajamas.




Is all that really necessary?


It doesn't make any difference if it is or isn't
necessary, thanks to the International
Civil Liberties Union the Supreme Court
says it is my right to defend myself if I even
think that some other kid is bringing a gun
to school. But, yes, it is necessary.


Since you reached puberty you think a gun is
an extension of your -


Enough. Lawrence, don't instigate trouble.


All this gun stuff is so stupid. My Universal
Rifle Association teacher yesterday made
a girl write on the blackboard 500 times,
Guns don't kill people, people kill people.


We should never have let the URA lobbyists
start financing the school system.


The class got him good. They sang Rock Me
Armageddon the entire time she was writing.


Not anymore.


We are soooo disappointed Armageddon
hasn't happened yet.


Then Carl got him good. As soon as Sara
finished writing, Carl asked him where he
could get a gun that would kill 500 people
at a time.




You think I would tell a homicidal maniac?


C'mon Stuart, I'll drive you to school.


Don't forget to check your guns at the school


Yeah, like I'm going to walk around those
halls unprotected.


Get dressed Lawrence. Your mother can
take you to school.


It's an impossible story, right?
One million young people took guns to school in the 1997-1998 school year. (~3.8%of them) About half of them had threatened a teacher, over half had threatened another student. About 60% were white, and 64% use drugs regularly. The percentage of inner city schools (where most violence occurs) was not given in this PRIDE survey.

Regarding parental influence over young people, drug use was 32% lower among children whose parents talked to them a lot about drugs, and when parents set clear rules, substance abuse fell 59%.

Clearly parents can have a 30-60% influence, but they can't control young people's behavior despite what many voices would like.


ABC News Special Report: Armed In America


The interpretation of information in this series and article is my own. I draw on the following books (and others) for information for this article/series, and recommend them for general treatments of their subjects, however they do not necessarily support my opinion:

These books are linked for your convenience to Author's names are linked to additional works by the author. I recommend finding the books marked textbooks at your local library or college, however they are available through Amazon but in less certain time frames and are expensive.

Mussen, Conger, Kagan, Huston. Child Development and Personality, seventh edition, 1990, HarperCollins. (This is a college level textbook. See additional works by Mussen below.)

Fowler, James. Stages of Faith, The Psychology Of Human Development And The Quest for Meaning, 1981, HarperCollins.

Levinson, Daniel. The Seasons Of A Man's Life, 1988, Alfred Knopf.


The following textbooks are by related authors on similar subjects, but I haven't read them:

Paul H. Mussen, Nancy Eisenberg. The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children (Cambridge Studies in Social and Emotional Development), 1989, Cambridge University Press.

Nancy Eisenberg, Janusz Reykowski, Ervin Staub. Social and Moral Values : Individual and Societal Perspectives, 1989, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Other distribution restrictions: None

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