Guns part of lifestyle for southern youths
America has become used to home-grown eruptions of numbing violence. But nobody has yet become used to mass murder by round-faced boys who play the trumpet and sing in church choirs.
'It's something we would never have dreamt of in this city,' said Hubert Bordell, Jonesboro's mayor.
Three times in six months - in Kentucky, Mississippi and now in Arkansas - pupils with guns have embarked on lethal rampages. Altogether 10 people have been murdered. Their deaths run counter to a sharp national decline in most forms of juvenile crime.
Why, Americans want to know, are children killing other children when most communities in the country are celebrating falling crime rates? And why does it seem to be happening not in black inner cities notorious for gangs and gunfire, but to poor white kids in the rural South? By chance, Arkansas was preparing yesterday for one of the great rites of passage of the southern way of life.
The wild turkey hunting season opens on Monday. As a traditional prelude, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission organises hunts restricted to children under 16, offering them a legal opportunity to bag their first wild bird. Undeterred by the Jonesboro tragedy, thousands of teenagers will fan out into the woods dressed in camouflage gear with their faces blackened and their shotguns cocked.
For some who live in cities and recoil from handling guns, no further explanation is necessary for the outbreaks of playground madness. The South is obsessed with guns, they say. Its children are bred to kill. It was not an argument that impressed Mike Huckabee, the Republican Governor of Arkansas.
'Southerners may have a positive view of guns, but we don't have a positive view of murder,' he said.