The Killing Of Kayla

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Not family. Not school officials. Not any social-service agency. Not the police. The people who lived next door to the crack house reported conditions there many times, but the police did not respond. One neighbor said, "It took a killing to get these people out of here."

The last thing that the opponents of gun control wish to hear is that guns too are partly responsible for killing Kayla, but of course they are. In response to the child's death, President Clinton challenged Congress to break the logjam on gun legislation. Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Henry Hyde, chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, which have failed since last summer to get through a compromise bill with modest strictures on the sale and possession of weapons and a requirement that guns be sold with trigger locks, agreed last week to meet with the President at the White House. On the Today show, Clinton said that while the bill has stalled, "every single day there are 13 children who die from guns."

Among the compromise bill's more contentious items are the regulation of gun shows and background checks for gun sales. Polls indicate that more people favor stronger gun control and that more are willing to make it a voting issue in the coming elections. But the atmosphere in the Republican Congress remains inhospitable to any effective bill. A proposal to have background checks for a mere three business days barely passed the Senate last year after the killings at Columbine. The day after the President appeared on Today, a representative of the National Rifle Association repeated the equally true and irrelevant argument that what happened in Michigan was the fault of parents, not guns.

The boy did the shooting, but how responsible is he for the act? The law in most states contends that under the age of seven, a child cannot understand the consequences of a criminal act, and indeed, the police said the boy--in spite of his history of violent behavior--did not seem to comprehend the gravity of what he had done. The Genesee County prosecutor said the boy could not have formed criminal intent.

The legal matter here is easier to deal with than the question of his awareness of good and evil. The influences on the boy at home could have armed him with the urge for revenge. But how aware was he of a wrong act? And did he understand that death is irreversible? If he did, how can he be absolved of knowing the consequences?

Ron Avi Astor, of the School of Social Work and Education at the University of Michigan, says that "just because a child understands that a gun could cause serious harm and death doesn't mean that society needs to treat the six-year-old in the same way it would a 20-year-old. We understand that children are more vulnerable." He also notes that with more aggressive kids, provocation becomes paramount. The boy who killed Kayla may have felt humiliated--by her, by everything--which became a justification for any act. Astor cautions, though, that culpability is just one piece of the problem. If we do not create a place and a structure for children as a whole, he says, "we'll see groups of children who should have been treated earlier committing horrible acts."

Whatever one concludes about responsibility, this incident will end as too many child killings have ended in recent years--with mournful speeches and eulogies and civic burial mounds made up of heart-shaped balloons, poems, and stuffed animals staring blankly into space. At least that is how it will end for Kayla. For the boy, who can tell? The state will probably take custody of him, his brother and five-year-old sister. It is possible that an enlightened environment somewhere will produce a wholly different child, and just as possible that the wounds go too deep and that he will emerge into adulthood knowing perfectly the meaning and consequences of criminal acts as he blithely commits them.

Last week the nation went through the sort of moment that is growing too familiar not only in content but also in the emotions it engenders. On the same day, one could feel heartbroken and fearful that one's children were in danger in their schools, and yet, also, that this is the way life goes these days, and who, after all, can do anything about it? If that attitude of inevitability prevails, some would say it answers the question "Who killed Kayla Rolland?"

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