US fails to learn from school shootings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2005, 12:00am

At the heart of the Minnesota shooting tragedy was a profoundly troubled and isolated teenager. There are unlikely to be any simple answers to the question of why events unfolded as they did this week and how the shooting could have been prevented. But there are signs that Jeffrey Weise's problems were repeatedly overlooked and perhaps even dismissed.

The loss of 10 lives, including the teenager's own, was also made possible by what are the loosest gun control laws in the developed world.

After this shooting, there will be calls for tighter security at schools. But more metal detectors and even guards - Weise's school had both, as do many other schools - are not the answer alone. A broader approach is needed, including better social and psychological counselling for students, conflict-resolution workshops and, most importantly, better knowledge of the problems teenagers are confronting.

Every time an incident like this makes the headlines, the world is able to see that for all the material wealth the United States can claim, some of its children face daunting emotional problems.

The antisocial rage that drove Weise may not be uniquely American: school shootings and Columbine-inspired plans have been witnessed or foiled from Canada to Japan. But the distressing regularity of such news from all parts of the United States should lead to soul-searching.

There were elements of Weise's life that should have triggered alarm. They included his father's suicide, his mother's confinement to a hospital after suffering brain damage in a car accident, a flirtation with neo-Nazi ideology and alienation from those around him.

Writing under pseudonyms in internet chat rooms, he claimed to have been investigated last year for a threat to 'shoot up' his school. More recently, he showed graphically violent drawings around and was suspended from school for an unspecified reason.

These problems, his family and school troubles in particular, may have received less attention than they should have because they are accepted as part of the backdrop on the impoverished Native American reservation in which he lived.

If Columbine drove home the message that suburban middle-class communities are not immune to such shootings, Red Lake may well dislodge a similar complacency about the reservations.

Now that the simple solution of turning schools into fortresses has proven ineffective, parents, principals and the broader American society may have to tackle the more complex reasons behind the atmosphere of violence in the nation's schools. What remains to be seen is whether any changes stemming from these events will be sweeping enough to make a dent in the problem.

One area where meaningful progress will be hard to come by is gun control.

National laws limiting sales and mandating registration of weapons remain weak. State laws are varied and full of loopholes. A pro-gun lobby has for decades succeeded in convincing politicians that the right to bear arms enshrined in the constitution's second amendment must translate into keeping hundreds of gun models on the market and millions of guns on the streets.

High-powered assault rifles are neither essential for the hunting enthusiast nor for self-defence, but lawmakers are having a hard time renewing a 10-year ban which has just expired. A fear that terrorists may be able to buy these guns could well see the ban put back in place.

But many other types of guns will remain available, essentially on demand. Legal dealerships are supplemented by a thriving black market. Children will remain especially vulnerable because there are few controls on how guns are stored: on an average day, 12 die from gunshots.

Even Weise's murderous campaign - rooted in psychosis but made easier by his easy access to weapons - is not likely to change this.