WASHINGTON — A brief news item caught my eye last week. Two second-graders had been arrested in Irvington, N.J., for playing cops and robbers with a paper gun, it said.

The seeming absurdity of this, not to mention my own incredulity, were intensified by the nature of their alleged crime: making terrorist threats. One youngster, it seems, had pointed his make-believe weapon at fellow classmates and threatened to kill them.

For crying out loud, have we gone crazy? Here were two 7-year-olds brandishing a piece of paper folded to look like a gun, playing what boys of that age always have played, "shoot-'em-up," as my grandmother referred to it. Couldn't this have been handled in the principal's office?

Under normal circumstances, the answer would have and should have been a resounding "yes." But these are hardly usual times, and within hours that same day a far more serious incident put the seemingly inane New Jersey response into a different perspective. From near San Diego came the report of another shooting at a high school.

Once again the nation was jarred by the spectacle of dozens of police, many in assault gear, weapons drawn, rushing to the aid of frightened teenagers and faculty fleeing harm's way.

But this latest attack on the sanctity of our public schools, where parents once could trust their children to be secure from the many potential harms they face during the rest of their day, is no less tragic in its implications than all the similar catastrophes of the past few years, including the infamous Columbine High School massacre. Violence, aided and abetted by unfettered access to firearms, has become a routine intruder in our public schools.

So desperate has been the response that in New Jersey two little boys with a piece of paper are considered potential threats and the authorities justify their own tough response, not unreasonably, by arguing that paper guns now become the real thing later. "What if we ignored the incident and in a day, week or month the same student came to school with a firearm?" one official asked. Under the circumstances, it is a legitimate question, and that, too, is a tragedy.

But just as legitimate are the questions that more and more American parents should be asking themselves. What is the eventual cost of this insane love affair with firearms — one of these slaughters every month or so? Do we want armed guards at the schoolhouse door and metal detectors and locked entrances and prisonlike fences around school yards? Is the death of children and their teachers just the price we must pay for our alleged constitutional right to bear arms?

Perhaps every child should periodically undergo a psychological examination to determine whether he or she is potentially dangerous or should be strip-searched at a location away from the main school each day. Maybe parents should have to sign an affidavit stating they have no guns at home before their children are permitted in school.

Preposterous? Obviously. But haven't we already reacted to the threat with steps that would not have been imaginable 50 years ago? Schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies that bring swift retribution for even the mention of guns or play shooting with one's finger. It isn't unlike saying the word "bomb" in an airport.

Drastic situations bring drastic measures — and often drastic overreaction. What could be more draconian than arresting two little boys with paper play toys obviously mimicking what they have seen on television on grounds that they might suddenly become mass murderers? Now that's real tragedy.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.