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There Must Be a Sense of Horror : Many are indifferent, even in the face of dreadful new figures on teen-age gunshot fatalities

June 14, 1992

No huge shock waves are likely to be created by newly released federal statistics indicating that gunshot wounds are the second most common cause of death among Americans 15 to 19 years old. Nor was there a massive outcry when it was found that gunshot is the leading cause of death among urban black male teen-agers--who now are 6.5 times more likely to be firearm fatalities than their white counterparts. Such is America's indifference to one of the foremost crises of our day; such is an indifference that amounts to a national disgrace.

The latest figures, issued last Tuesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, confirm once again--as if more proof were needed--that gun violence is out of control.

Among the center's findings: Only traffic accidents cause more deaths than guns among people 15 to 19 years old. A third of high school students say they have easy access to handguns, and 6% take them to school. The per capita rate of firearm homicides among black male teen-agers (226 per 100,000) in Los Angeles is second only to that in Washington, America's murder capital.

This problem will only grow as increasing numbers of youngsters decide that the only way to gain respect or defend themselves is to walk around armed.

Five years ago, the L.A. County district attorney's office prosecuted 945 youths for carrying firearms. By last year, that annual figure had more than doubled. Records from the Los Angeles County coroner's office show that in 1970, one in 10 fatal shootings involved children or teen-agers. Today the numbers are one in four.

The powerful gun lobby continues to block reasonable steps to contain this explosion of death and destruction. That lobby should, instead, become a constructive partner in an effort to pass uniform federal regulations that keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally disturbed and children.

Instead, as the death toll rises, we hear the same tired and specious claims: That the 2nd Amendment protects the absolute right of every individual to own and possess firearms without government interference and that guns don't kill, the people who misuse them do.

In the meantime, gunfire continues to erupt in places once thought to be havens for young people--birthday parties and football games, schoolyards and school buses. On Thursday, Jermaine Allen Johnson, 4, died after a bullet pierced an outside wall and struck him when he was in bed in his Long Beach home.

How much longer can our society remain blind to the slaughter of its children? How much longer will we tolerate the erosion of the state of childhood among our increasingly frightened youngsters?

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