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There is no refuge from the senseless gun violence that plagues the United States. Homes, offices, places of worship, city streets and even schools — no place is safe. This week, there was an especially horrifying episode: the shooting of one first-grader by another. The details tell a tragic story, but the real tragedy is that even this pointless death is unlikely to change anything.

Six-year-old Kayla Rolland, a first-grader at Buell Elementary school, outside Detroit, was shot and killed by a classmate, a 6-year-old boy. The reason for the shooting is unclear; there are reports that the two children had had a fight the previous day. In fact, the reason for the shooting is irrelevant. A child is dead, and another child is the killer. That is all we need to know.

How did this happen? Some will blame the environment that the boy lived in. His father and grandfather are in jail on gun-related charges. His mother is reportedly a drug addict, and the house that she and her children had been staying in was said to be a “flophouse,” where people came to trade weapons for drugs. The boy is alleged to have taken one such weapon from under a bed to school to shoot the girl.

Others will blame a culture that glamorizes and markets violence. Reportedly, after being questioned by authorities about the shooting, the boy started drawing pictures, shrugging off the violence as no more real than television. They will point to similar incidents, such as the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and argue that society is at fault for encouraging lifestyles and ways of thinking that are grounded in alienation and antisocial behavior. That explanation carries little weight when the killer is a 6-year-old.

The ability of such a small child to get his hands on a weapon — a gun that had been reported stolen — points to one obvious cause: the obscene availability of guns in the U.S. According to one authoritative study, 36 percent to 50 percent of male 11th-graders believe they could easily get a gun if they wanted one.

As a result, it is estimated that 12 children are shot every day in the U.S. And more and more of the shootings are taking place in schools. In 1999 alone, at least 26 children were shot, wounded or killed by fellow students in U.S. schools. The U.S. Department of Education says that over 6,000 students were expelled in 1996-1997 for taking guns to school.

The most important question, then, is what is going to be done about this slaughter. The answer is most likely to be nothing. The political dynamic in the U.S. will not be altered by the death of one more innocent child. The National Rifle Association continues to be one of the most effective and powerful political lobbies, and it refuses to countenance any form of gun control out of fear of starting down a slippery slope toward the eventual banning of all weapons.

Gun advocates and their political representatives want to blame “bad parenting.” They are right to say that the parenting in this case was appalling, but there would have been no shooting if handguns had not been so readily available. In most cases, they are also right to say that guns do not kill people, people kill people. But this time, the killer was a 6-year-old who had no idea of the consequences of his actions. U.S. law says he cannot be held responsible for what he did because he did not have the requisite intent. Legally speaking, the gun killed Kayla.

Some U.S. politicians favor regulations that require gun owners to exercise more caution in the care of their weapons. It is a least-bad option. Research shows that 20 percent of adults with guns kept their weapons unlocked and loaded in the home. Among gun-owning parents, 14 percent did not lock up their guns. Noting that accidental gun deaths among U.S. children are nine times higher than in the 25 other largest countries combined, U.S. President Bill Clinton has called for legislation requiring trigger locks on guns.

Any such legislation is likely to fall victim to the power of the NRA. As the U.S. heads into the election campaign, NRA lobbyists will remind the candidates that the group’s members care passionately about the issue and are sure to make it the deciding factor when they turn out in November. The only way to counter that influence is to make gun control a key issue in the campaign. Gun-control supporters must make their stand with equal passion and commitment, and guarantee to candidates that they will be equally determined to vote their conscience. In short, the forthcoming ballot must become a referendum on guns in America. Only then will the tragedies cease, and only then will Americans have some assurance that such senseless violence “cannot happen here” after all.

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