EDITORIAL: School Kids, with Guns, Part Two

Read Part One

The AR-15 and other semiautomatic rifles also turned up in shootings, fueling a movement to restrict their manufacture and sale. Much of the outrage stemmed from the militaristic appearance of those guns, and their ability to fire rapidly.  But there was also a more visceral reason, involving flesh and blood. AR-15s inflict much more damage to human tissue than the typical handgun, which is used in most shootings…

— from ‘America’s rifle: Why so many people love the AR-15,” by reporter Jon Schuppe

Jimmy — not his real name — graduated from Pagosa Springs High School by the skin of his teeth, according to his parents, whom I’ve known since they moved to Pagosa a decade ago. Math and reading were not Jimmy’s strong suits.

But hunting and fishing? You would be hard pressed to find a young man who knew as much about the behavior of our local wildlife, and about the best methods of harvesting them for human consumption. Nor would you easily find a PSHS graduate with comparable skill at various video games that involve simulated hand-to-hand combat and the handling of virtual military weapons.

I was familiar with Jimmy’s collection of hunting and fishing equipment. But I will admit to some surprise, when he showed me his new AR-15. It was flat black, and looked nothing like a hunting rifle. That is to say, it looked nothing like the type of gun I would expect a Pagosa teenager to own.

Jimmy had purchased the parts to this semi-automatic rifle online as separate items, and had then assembled the AR-15 himself.  Apparently, he is on good company. If you do a Google search for “AR-15 parts” you will be provided with links to about 327,000 websites.

To judge from the parts shown on some of those websites, it would appear that ‘flat black’ is the favored color when you are ordering AR-15 components. That was the color Jimmy had chosen for his rifle.

But for the ladies who might want something more feminine in a semi-automatic weapon, you can also purchase your rifle parts in pink.

According to a fascinating article I found on the NBC website — ‘America’s rifle: Why so many people love the AR-15,” posted this past December by reporter Jon Schuppe — the AR-15 was originally developed as a civilian weapon by the California manufacturer ArmaLite. (thus, the initials, “AR”) and was revolutionary in terms of its light weight, ease of assembly and disassembly, and its ability to accept various components. Colt bought the patent and began mass production of the AR-15 in 1963. Meanwhile, the company was modifying the weapon into a ‘selective fire’ version for the U.S. military: the famously light-weight and versatile M16. (‘Selective fire’ rifles can operate in either automatic or semi-automatic modes.) The M16 was deployed during the Vietnam War, beginning in 1965.

In 1977, the Colt patent expired, and other companies began developing their own versions of the AR-15 for the consumer market. According to the NBC article:

“Today, one of out of every five firearms purchased in this country is an AR-style rifle, according to a [National Shooting Sports Foundation] estimate. Americans now own an estimated 15 million AR-15s, gun groups say. New AR-15 style guns range widely in price, from about $500 to more than $2,000.”

That’s one AR-15 style rifle for every 17 American adults.

“Because an AR-15, or a variant, was used in several mass shootings — including Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino,California; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Las Vegas, in which a total of 137 people were killed — this civilian sibling of a military assault rifle is an exceptionally polarizing product of modern American industry. The AR-15 and its semi-automatic cousins — they shoot one round for each pull of the trigger ─ incite repulsion among those who see them as excessive, grotesque and having no place on the civilian market.”

We are discussing school safety in this editorial series, for several reasons. First and foremost, we want our school children to be safe, and we want to understand the threats they are facing here in Pagosa Springs. Secondly, our community is currently involved in planning for new and remodeled school facilities — and the price tag for Phase I of the current plan appears to be in the neighborhood of $50 million, most of which would come from increased property taxes.

Can we make our schools safe?  And does that safety have anything to do with semi-automatic rifles?

Semi-automatic weapons have grown in popularity in the U.S. — both handguns and rifles — and such weapons have been used in school shooting over the past 30 years. Many believe that easy access to guns here in America is central to the apparent epidemic of gun violence in our schools.

Stories in the news media may have given us the impression that school shootings and semi-automatic rifles go hand in hand. In fact, rifles are rarely used in school shootings. The weapon of choice is most often a handgun.

We also might have the impression that “school shootings” are always “mass shootings.”

Our collective imaginations have been deeply colored by a couple of highly-publicized mass shootings that took place in U.S. schools: at Columbine High School in 1999, where 39 people were killed or injured, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, where 29 people — mostly children — were killed or injured. But those are only two of the tragic events we’ve heard and read about over the past 30 years.

A few Google searches about gun violence in America can provide a mind-boggling number of statistics dealing with either “mass shootings” or “school shootings.” For example, you might come across a report about violence in schools, and the steady decline in overall violence noted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

These are government statistics, so I wouldn’t suggest that they are 100 percent accurate. But here is a chart showing the general trend of violence against juveniles in the U.S., since 1980:

This chart is focused on violent crimes against juveniles that did not involve guns.  The dotted line at the year 2006 denotes the year the Department of Justice changed the way they collected and sorted the information.  The decline in violence is reflected in another DOJ chart that specifically covers violence experienced by children at school, or on their way to or from school — covering the years from 1992 through 2010:

Yet another chart deals specifically with children who are homicide victims.  We again see a pattern where the peak of violence takes place around 1993, and then declines steadily over the next two decades.  One thing I find particularly interesting in this chart is the fact that the number of homicides committed by adults remains relatively steady… but the number of homicides committed by juvenile offenders in 2015 appears to be about one quarter the number we saw in 1993.

What’s going on here?

And how do these statistics relate to the problem of ‘school safety’… and especially, to gun violence?

Read Part Three…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.