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The Real Enemies of America's Kids


From the pulpit of national politics to the local PTA, everyone's fighting to save the children.

Bob Dole wants to save them from Hollywood.

Congress wants to save them from smut on the Internet.

Educators and health officials want to save them from pregnancy and disease. Some parents want to save them from sex education. And somebody's always fighting to keep Darwin out of the classroom and "The Catcher in the Rye" out of the library.

In Carroll County's schools, parents recently succeeded in banning "The Witch Goes to School," a whimsical book featuring a markedly non-malevolent, non-occultish witch. They believe it undermines Christianity.

Bloody movies, raunchy songs, sex and secularism -- these are the evils people fear are killing our kids. These issues pack school board hearings, spawn grass-roots crusades and dominate political rhetoric.

They are valid issues. Mr. Dole's diatribe against Hollywood didn't become a national talking point for nothing. Decent citizens do worry about violence and gratuitous sex in movies, music and TV hurting their kids and spilling over into real life.

But the entertainment industry isn't the real enemy. Neither is sex education nor stories of make-believe fairy creatures nor people who don't think or act as we do.

The biggest battle isn't for our kids' minds and morals. It's for their lives.

The real enemy is guns, drugs and drink. If we want to save the children, we have to find a way to slay that three-headed hydra.

Just look at the Baltimore-area headlines and police blotters for the last year. Virtually every tragedy or near-disaster involving a child has also involved guns; most also involve drugs or alcohol.

In Anne Arundel, this week's casualty is Nicole Bastan-Siar of Odenton, dead at 14. She shot herself in the head in a girlfriend's Glen Burnie apartment. Nicole was visiting when four teen-aged boys stopped by. They may have smuggled alcohol in with them. One of the boys definitely was carrying a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. Somehow he and another boy ended up in a bedroom with Nicole, and she used the gun to kill herself. Relatives of some of the other children said she was upset over a lost boyfriend.

Nicole's story is nothing new or unusual; it's just the latest in long litany of trouble involving kids and guns.

A 17-year-old Lansdowne boy kills a young Glen Burnie man over a girl. He used a gun that had been given to him by his 16-year-old buddy for the express purpose of committing the murder.

Three young people are hit by a shotgun blast as they stand

outside a party in Edgewater. The 20-year-old shooter was high on PCP.

An eight-year-old brings a loaded semi-automatic handgun belonging to his mother's boyfriend to Hilltop Elementary School. Apparently he was fascinated by the gun and wanted to show it to his friends. Fortunately, school officials found it before anyone got hurt.

In Baltimore, children are being mowed down like front-line soldiers. In 1994, 814 kids under 19 were treated for firearm injuries. Forty-one died. Thirty suffered devastating brain, nerve and spinal cord injuries.

Personally, I vote for reasonable gun control every chance I get. One look at the newspaper every morning is enough to convince me that the proliferation of firearms is destroying our cities and causing senseless deaths -- like Nicole Bastan-Siar's -- in every community in every state.

But I also know plenty of people disagree, and they're protected by the most powerful and immovable lobby in the nation. The National Rifle Association and other hard-core gun supporters see gun ownership as a religion and a sacred constitutional right. They won't budge.

So I say: All right. Some of us don't like guns. Some of us think the country would be better off without them. But I, for one, am thoroughly tired of the siege over guns.

I'm tired, every time a child gets shot, of hearing the same war of words. It solves nothing. And it creates friction in our society, as explosive as the conflict over abortion.

The reality is this: We live in a country where many Americans feel strongly that the Constitution guarantees them a right to their own gun.

Fine. I can accept that. But it's time to stop harping on the Constitution and start working to find ways to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers meant for every citizen to pack his own semiautomatic. But they certainly never intended for us to see our children blown away by the thousands.

Maybe waiting periods and background checks are part of answer. Maybe we need to better educate parents who buy guns or stiffen penalties for adults who, deliberately or through negligence, put guns in kids' hands. Maybe there are other solutions; we have to find them.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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