The New Age of Anxiety: Whether They Live in a Leafy Suburb or an Inner City, Parents Can No Longerpretend That Their Children Are Immune from the Threat of Guns. the Challenge Isto Make Kids Feel Secure-But Also Aware of the Real Risks

Newsweek, August 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

The New Age of Anxiety: Whether They Live in a Leafy Suburb or an Inner City, Parents Can No Longerpretend That Their Children Are Immune from the Threat of Guns. the Challenge Isto Make Kids Feel Secure-But Also Aware of the Real Risks


It is indeed an anxious season--nowhere more than in Littleton, Colo., where students return this week to Columbine High School. Some, like junior Lance Kirklin, whose face was shattered by a bullet in the massacre last spring, bear physical scars of the tragedy. Others carry wounds in their hearts. Parents in Littleton say they are determined to protect their children. "We're trying very hard to make it as normal as possible," insists the mother of junior Diana Cohen. But will things ever be "normal" again, in Littleton or anywhere else?

Columbine--and Paducah and Granada Hills--sounded the alarm for parents around the country. Whether they live in the inner city or the most serene suburb, they now know that their kids are not immune from the threat of guns. "The places you used to think were safe have been violated by these random acts of violence," says Kathy Thomas, a mother of three from Thousand Oaks, Calif. "I certainly don't want my kids to live in fear." Parents worry about how schools will protect their children and aren't sure how to begin the uncomfortable but essential dialogue with their kids about the risks of guns. In that task they face "a terrible dilemma," says Neil Guterman, a professor of social work at Columbia University and an expert on children and violence. "They have to convey a sense of safety and security to their children and, at the same time, not hide the truth."

Although 81 percent of those surveyed in the NEWSWEEK Poll think there has been an increase in gun-related incidents at schools lately, violence in the classroom has actually declined dramatically in this decade. Schools are among the safest places children can be. The National School Safety Center reports that last year there were just 25 violent deaths (including 15 at Columbine), compared with an average of 50 in the early 1990s. Only a tiny fraction of all homicides involving school-age children occur in or around schools, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But it's also true that guns are a serious threat to kids. "People are too worried about school," says Kevin Dwyer, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "I think they need to be more worried about the avalanche of guns in the community." According to government statistics, 4,223 children were killed by firearms in 1997, many of them in accidents while playing at friends' homes in their own neighborhoods. Thousands more were injured by guns. Some experts predict that firearm-related injuries could soon replace car crashes as the leading cause of death for young children.

More and more people seem to be getting that message. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 64 percent of parents of kids under 18 were somewhat or very concerned that their children might get hurt or into trouble while visiting the homes of friends who own guns. "I lived in New York City for 14 years and felt safer there because nobody had a gun in the house, but here people have rifles," says Debra Leonard, a physician who lives in rural Bethel Township, Pa. "I tell my kids nobody can protect themselves from a gun if it's not locked up in a cabinet, so they should leave the [friend's] house and call me to pick them up if anyone ever handles a gun."

Unlike some parents, Leonard did allow her two sons to play with toy guns. "Our children have water guns and cowboy guns," she says. "If you don't give them guns, they build them. …

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