Unfortunately, a comment by one of my daughters came rushing back to mind earlier this week. Well, actually it was more of an inquiry than a comment. While I was working for a newspaper in Gallup, N.M., my youngest (Carrie Anne) posed a seemingly innocent but very profound question in the wake of the nightmare at Littleton, Colorado in April 1999. I had spent the previous few days staring in near disbelief as my computer screen scrolled through all the gory particulars of the Columbine High School massacre.

So, it's painfully obvious why Carrie Anne's inquiry would come gushing back this week in the light of the latest of these schoolyard horrors in Southern California.

''Dad,'' she noted in much the same state of daze and amazement as the rest of the nation, ''just how do people survive these things?'' It should have hit me right then, but it took a while to digest the fact that except for two-hour celluloid caravans of fancy, what do young people really know of death, destruction and the utter violence of things like this?

The answer is very little indeed.

If the young people of this nation are basing their opinions about guns and violence on the pictures beamed over computer terminals, TV screens and movie theaters the events in places like Littleton and earlier this week in Santee, Calif., must be a culture shock of astronomical proportions. Now, my daughter is a young woman who has grown up in the age of computers, where blood and gore are virtual images on a game screen that can be conjured back to life with the mere touch of the restart button. Our movie screens are full of the same kinds of images, with gaping holes, severed limbs and scarlet rivers.

But, as even my grandson is all too aware, ''It's only pretend, Grampa!'' The latest community to grapple with the real horror that is violent death is a suburb of San Diego, Calif. A freshman, who had warned a number of acquaintances and at least one adult, walked into his high school and, with a reported ''smile'' on his face, killed two and wounded 13 others. We will once again fire up the moral indignation and wring our hands over the deaths of more of our children and search desperately for the reasons ''WHY?'' And all the time we'll ignore the obvious fact that without a firearm this young man, nor virtually all the others before him, would not have wrought such an unspeakable terror.

This boy, whose lack of physical size probably led him to be the brunt of far too much emotional pain, obviously tried to equalize his stature with that greatest of all equalizers -- a gun. And it is also an obvious fact that without such a weapon he could barely have exacted such vengeance. In just the 11 months following the Columbine High School murders, no less than 4,000 individuals were killed as a result of gun violence in this country. And I'm certain that they didn't die because our nation's eye wasn't focused on the questions of guns and their proliferation here in America. Within a month of the April 20, 1999 Littleton nightmare, six high schoolers were wounded by another student in Georgia. In Colorado a month later a father shoots and kills his three children. Four children are among six killed in an Atlanta home later that same summer, while five kids die at the hands of their father in December.

Then, in February 2000, a first-grader shoots and kills a classmate in Michigan.

Indeed, there have been no fewer than 200 violent incidents at American schools since 1992.

This is certainly madness on an overwhelming scale. And it is a madness we justify by selectively reading portions of our own Constitution, which supposedly imbues us all with the inviolate ''right to bear arms.'' Our forefathers, if they were the men I was always led to believe they were, must be looking down on us all with utter disgust and shame, for allowing their wonderful words to be twisted in such away that would protect a so-called liberty which is devouring our young. And if this is what they meant by those few words in the Second Amendment all along, then they are reviewing the results of their handiwork from hell, where such misguided ideals have certainly left us.

There were 3,519 white males, ages 15 to 24, killed by guns in this country in 1998. Guns were the second leading cause of death, behind auto accidents, of this group.

For black males in the same age group, the 2,890 gun deaths in the same year meant that firearms were the leading cause of death for that demographic. So, I am no closer today, following this latest tragedy, to being able to answer my daughter's question, except to say, that we always seem to survive somehow.

There will be a few more bunches of flowers and notes pinned to teddy bears, stories about how ''If only we'd have paid attention to the signs,'' and ''He just didn't seem capable of such a thing!'' But the rest of us will go on.

That seems to be what we do best; go on. We go on as we've always gone on, deluding ourselves that a few dead kids is not too great a price to pay for protecting the alleged rights of a few individuals with a phallic fixation for guns. We'll keep going on in hopes the next lull between the loud reports of gunfire lasts a little longer than the last. And when it sounds again, as it most assuredly will, we'll strike a few matches to start those fires under our representatives, who'll say all the right things for a couple of weeks only to get a call from their campaign finance chairman who'll remind them of the fat contribution check that arrived just today from the National Rifle Association. And an NRA mouthpiece will probably once again explain how we can't let our emotional response to these kinds of aberrations overrule our cooler judgment when it comes to the ''right to bear arms.''

Maybe we can get another ''Those (youngsters) who do their homework, go to church on Sunday, have proper family upbringing aren't being shot in any particularly different numbers Š the rise (in gun deaths among youths) is among those involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity.'' Perhaps a representative from this illustrious organization should be on hand this week to calm the parents at Santana High School with such sensitive statistical reassurances.

Because, sadly enough, the truth is that it's our kids -- black, white, rich, poor, good grades and bad -- who are dying. And they will continue to die as long as we continue to ''go on'' allowing people to tell us that this isn't massive insanity.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online March 7, 2001

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