School shootings and a long litany of heartbreak: Pearl, Jonesboro, Columbine, Newtown

WASHINGTON -  I wish I could say nothing prepared me for the horror of the Newtown, Conn., elementary-school massacre. But in the news business, plenty already had.

Fifteen years ago today, an 11- and a 13-year-old pulled a fire alarm and then blasted away as their classmates and teachers tried to escape Westside Middle School outside Jonesboro, Ark. They killed five and wounded 10. I covered the cathartic sentencing hearing where each bullet wound was traced to one of the killers' weapons.

 Before that, I'd covered the aftermath of the Oct. 1, 1997, school shooting in Pearl, Miss., where a troubled teenager killed his ex-girlfriend and another girl, and wounded seven other classmates.

Both of those events preceded Columbine.

On April 20, 1999, I was sent to Denver and on to an emergency room where I listened to a trauma surgeon describe how he'd clamped off a 17-year-old's aorta to repair a sliced main artery and her lacerated liver as she clung to life. One day, I went to the funeral of Matthew Kechter, a straight-A student and varsity lineman. The day before, I'd attended Daniel Rohrbough's funeral at Grace Presbyterian Church near Littleton, Colo.

The Rev. Dwight R. Blackstock, in his eulogy, recalled 15-year-old Danny as the boy who held the school's door open so others could escape. "He laid down his life for his friends," the minister said.

 Last week, Blackstock, 66 and now retired, told me that the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton "was a defining moment for us. A lot of us sort of think of 'before-Columbine' and 'after-Columbine.' " Then he paused to make a painful point.

"Obviously, it wasn't the kind of thing that created the political will to do anything about gun violence," he said.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 21 others at Columbine that spring day in 1999.

"It's almost ritualized behavior by now," said Morris Berman, a cultural historian and author of "A Question of Values" (2010). "This thing comes out of nowhere, supposedly. Then we wring our hands and say, 'We must do something,' and we don't do anything. …

"I doubt that things would change if there were a Newtown every day."

The Associated Press, noting that the U.S. has roughly 31,000 gun-related deaths a year -- 87 gun deaths a day, including about 30 homicides -- looked at "One Deadly Day" recently. On the January day it picked, several victims were children.

The summer before Columbine, I'd covered the Hattiesburg, Miss., trial of then-17-year-old Luke Woodham, who killed a former girlfriend and another student and wounded seven others with a deer rifle at his high school in Pearl, Miss., after bludgeoning his mother to death at home. One of the earliest school shooters to make national headlines, Woodham told the court that he'd been under the influence of Satan when he entered the school commons on October 1997.

"I guess it was like I was there but I wasn't," he told police in his videotaped confession.

 In Jonesboro, I sat in a courtroom and watched the barely contained fury of Mitchell Wright as he addressed the killers of his schoolteacher wife, Shannon. He said his then-3-year-old son Zane told him, "Don't worry about those two bad boys because, if they break out of jail, I'll take care of you." Zane would be about 18 now.

Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson were locked up until they were 21, but have been free for some time. Arkansas authorities turned down Golden's application for a concealed-weapons permit in 2008. Fingerprints kept the permit out of the killer's hands; he had already changed his name. Together, Golden and Johnson killed one teacher and four students and wounded nine other students and a teacher.

Memories of Pearl, Jonesboro and Columbine surfaced again on a Sunday night two days after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown. I happened to be visiting my brother there and walked his dog down Main Street, past a town hall draped with symbolic heartbreak . The president had just spoken to the country from an auditorium a few blocks away. I tweeted out some pictures, but didn't stay to write.

The director of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research, Daniel W. Webster, spoke to the National Press Club earlier this month. He cited evidence of sizable public will to make some change: a nationally representative poll in January showed that 89 percent of respondents favored background checks prior to gun purchases. So did 74 percent of National Rifle Association memb0ers.

The NRA has been stoking fears of a federal gun registry that no one has proposed. Webster said the law -- which now exempts private gun sales, including those at gun shows -- should require background checks of all prospective buyers. Authorities are required by law to destroy records of background checks within 24 hours.

 In his recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference here, the NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, denounced universal background checks as a "placebo" offered by "the political elites" that won't make streets safer but "will only serve as universal registration of lawful gun owners -- the real goal they've been pushing for decades."

LaPierre has called for armed guards in all schools. Despite the headlines, school remains "one of the safest places anyone can be in the country," Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, recently told NPR.

Besides background checks, the Johns Hopkins-organized researchers recommended having all gun sales go through federally licensed dealers, banning assault-style weapons and limiting the capacity of ammunition clips to 10 rounds.

After Newtown, the same old reasonable but legislatively impossible ideas began competing with a new notion, breathtaking in its simplicity: Why shouldn't gun owners be required to have liability insurance, just as car owners are, with premiums based on risk and the cost of potential damage? Why not pass the cost of gun violence from victims and the broader society to the marketplace?

            Some Newtown residents have written to their U.S. senators and new Democratic congresswoman with that proposal and spelled out its advantages.

Among them: "It eliminates any objection from those with the most expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment; it makes no effort to tell anyone which arms they can keep and bear. If any American can show he or she is a worthy risk and can pay the premium, that person can buy a desired gun, just as he or she can own and drive a high-powered vehicle after insuring it."

Rates might be based on objective measures, such as an owner taking a gun-safety course, much as rates are lowered for those who take driver training or homeowners get a break for installing smoke detectors, the Newtown residents argued.

Their letter suggested that the gun and insurance industries should work together toward "a fair, practical permanent plan" to deal with 300 million guns, just as insurers have crafted policies "for our 250 million passenger vehicles."

So far, a federal bill along these lines has not been introduced, but some legislators -- notably in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts and Connecticut -- have filed them at the state level.

Some lawmakers are making the case that gun violence is not about ideology -- it's about public health.

But here in our nation's capital, it looks like we're going through an all-too-familiar charade. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed assault-weapons ban -- which would only restrict future sales while keeping tens of thousands of the same kinds of weapons in circulation -- last week was pulled out of a broader gun-policy bill. As a stand-alone amendment, its defeat is expected. No mainstream politician talks about confiscating these simulated battlefield weapons, or even offering game-changing incentives for voluntary buybacks.

Have we learned anything from this litany of failures? I'm not sure. As I was leaving Colorado those many years ago, I dashed off a story for the Rocky Mountain News. It said the flower arrangements piling high at Columbine shrines were to be composted to nurture future garden.

Maybe something good has come of that.

(Bartholomew Sullivan is the Washington correspondent for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. Email


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