School Shooting Highlights Issue of Parental Responsibility

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Students of Santana High School grieve for classmates at a makeshift memorial

Every new school shooting sets off a new debate over gun control. Pundits and educators get a few precious minutes on the national stage, hyping their points of view. And then, before anything substantive happens, the debate fades away.

Some argue that the stream of violence is abetted by lax or nonexistent gun laws. Others argue the current laws are just fine, thanks, it's just that someone needs to enforce them. Still others insist that while laws are a critical tool for cutting down on juvenile gun violence, we need to place more emphasis on identifying and helping the kids who eventually turn guns on their classmates and, sometimes, themselves. Then, of course, there are cries for parental responsibility.

Monday morning, Santana High School, in Santee, Calif., was caught off guard by a lone gunman, 15-year-old freshman Charles Andrew Williams. Everyone called him Andy, according to news reports, and almost everyone liked to pick on him. Monday, Andy arrived at school with a .22 caliber revolver and proceeded to fire at least 30 shots into his school, killing two students and wounding 13 other people

. Local authorities believe the .22 was kept locked up in the house Andy shared with his father, and that the boy somehow found the key and took the gun to school. Whether the gun was kept locked up or not could be critical for Andy's father, who could, under California law, be found criminally liable if his son had easy access to the gun used in the shooting.

In the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings, President Clinton announced a wide range of gun control proposals, including legislation that would raise the legal age for handgun possession from 18 to 21, and would, under some circumstances, hold parents liable if their children committed crimes with family-owned guns. The initiative failed in Congress, but California lawmakers adopted it as their own.

A brief from the official California Justice Department web site reads: "In most cases, if you keep any loaded firearm within any premise which is under your custody or control and know or reasonably should know that a child (person under 16 years of age) is likely to gain access to the firearm, you may be guilty of a felony if a child gains access to that firearm and thereby causes death or injury to any person unless the firearm was in a secure locked container or locked with a locking device that rendered it inoperable."

One of those who agrees with California's law is Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and author of the book "Young Killers." "Accessibility of firearms is obviously a key issue here," she said, "and current laws don't seem to be adequate. And that is, to some extent, because the laws aren't being enforced. The lethality or firepower of some of these weapons is also an issue — parents need to be more aware of what is happening with their weapons."

Heide also believes that society needs to end its collective fixation on penalties. "Punishment doesn't help solve the problem," she said. "Healthy, happy kids don't do things like this. I would suggest we ought to be looking at laws that guarantee that kids in trouble can get the mental health treatment they need."

Americans are almost unique in the world in their passion for firearms. And so, says Heide, we're also alone in the world when we grieve over school violence. "Incidents like this are either unheard-of or incredibly rare in other countries. We have a message in our popular culture that if kids are unhappy, this is a way to express victimhood. So if kids have access to guns, they will carry out that message."

Under current California law, Andy Williams will be tried as an adult, and could face multiple life sentences. No word yet on whether his father will be held responsible in any way for his son's actions, but the debate surrounding parental accountability — and its role in a culture of youth violence — has already heated up again.