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By Jerome J. Shestack
President, American Bar Association

The recent tragic schoolyard shootings in Arkansas reinvigorated calls in some camps for "tougher juvenile justice laws," and there is movement afoot to pass highly controversial juvenile justice legislation known as S.10 -- legislation that found when it was first offered little support from any group that knows or cares about juvenile crime, and which deserves no more support now than then. The bill proposes such measures as trying more children in the federal system, trying more children as adults, and removing longstanding protections for children in custody, such as separating them from adult offenders. But tougher punishments would not have prevented these shootings.

We should focus our attention on a critical problem these killings point out so vividly -- the easy access children in this country have to guns. Because of lax laws and little enforcement, children often have nearly unfettered access to unsecured firearms in their own homes and in the homes of other family members, friends and neighbors. Congress has avoided this important issue in a bill that is purportedly attempting to address juvenile violence.

Most nations restrict the availability of handguns much more carefully than does the United States, and this difference has a telling impact on juvenile violence in our midst. Worldwide statistics show that the epidemic of violence that has hit younger children in recent years is confined almost exclusively to the United States. According to a 1993 United Nations report, nine out of ten killings of young people in the industrialized world happen in the United States. The overall firearm-related death rate among American children under 15 years old was nearly 12 times higher than among children in the other 25 industrialized countries combined. More American teenagers now die from disease-related causes.

There is no realistic doubt that the pervasive, easy (even if illegal) access to firearms in this country is the primary reason for these appalling statistics.

Instead of rearguing legislation that would lock up more children with adults -- which has been shown to produce more criminals instead of fewer -- Congress should work on long overdue legislative steps to prevent both organized illegal trafficking of firearms and easy access to firearms often obtained in the home. Gun owners should be required to provide and use secure storage or safety devices; safety standards should be enacted to treat guns as consumer products; and specific, proven safety features should be incorporated in the manufacture and sale of all firearms, such as gun locks and load indicators, to prevent accidents and unauthorized access to guns in the home by teenagers and children. Legislation aimed at curbing juvenile violence cannot be successful without addressing how easy it is for children to get guns in this country.

Nothing will return the lives lost in that Arkansas schoolyard. But steps can and should be taken to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.