WASHINGTON — One 17-year-old looks forward to getting his first hunting revolver. Another says guns are too available. But they agree America's teens are not as prone to violence as the rash of school shootings might suggest.
"They focus way too much on that," said Noelle Nelson of Hot Springs, S.D., who favors less availability. "School kids are getting a very bad rap," said Andrew Salisbury of Easton, Mass., who looks forward to his 21st birthday, which brings with it his eligibility for a hunting license.
In an unusual platform for the gun control debate, 200 teenagers from around the country peppered a National Rifle Association lobbyist and a gun-control advocate Tuesday with tough questions on weapons and school safety.
The event was organized by Close-Up, a Washington-area group that promotes greater youth involvement in politics, and the students hailed from Massachusetts, Arizona, Iowa, the Dakotas and Michigan.
John Frazer, the NRA lobbyist, and Michael Beard, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence, fielded detailed questions about safety locks, state vs. federal legislation and the dangers of unregulated gun show purchases.
Some questioners came prepared with statistics showing a decline in school violence. The most recent Department of Education figures show 34 violent deaths in schools in 1998-99, as opposed to the high of 49 deaths in 1995-96.
When politicians and lobbyists of both sides focus on that violence, the students said, they inadvertently encourage it.
"There was a rash of copycats after Columbine, because that's all they showed," said Nelson. The April 1999 Columbine shootings in Colorado left a teacher and 14 students dead, including the two attackers.
Beard, who speaks to students across the country, said he's noticed that many are becoming defensive about the issue.
"They feel the media focuses too much on the negative side," he said after the debate. "It's why I included that upbeat stuff." He began his address by congratulating the youths for their involvement in the debate.
Frazer said the students' reactions confirmed one of his central debating points: "America has never been safer — crime, violence, accidents have all declined."
Still, school violence cropped up frequently in questions; this month, two students were killed and 18 wounded in two incidents in the San Diego area.
"I find kids have been asking more substantive questions since Columbine," Beard said.
Dakota Bixler said the debate was especially relevant in her hometown, South Dakota's capital, Pierre. It was nicknamed "the U.S. suicide capital" for a proliferation of teen suicides several years ago — among them, some of her classmates.
"America has a long way to go when it comes to guns," she said.
Beard told the students that ten Americans aged 15 or under die from gunfire each day, and that the key to preventing their deaths is tougher legislation; Frazer said guns are necessary for self-defense, and the laws on the book, if adequately enforced, would roll back gun-related homicides.
Frazer said the NRA opposes safety locks legislation, because it's impossible to mandate a uniform lock for all guns. Beard said federal regulation is necessary to tie up myriad loopholes in state laws; Frazer preferred keeping legislation at the state and local level. Beard said unregulated sales at gun shows pose a threat; Frazer said only 2 percent of guns sold at such shows end up in criminal hands.
Both speakers were peppered with tough, detailed questions, but Frazer drew criticism from NRA supporters as well as gun-control activists for opposing any kind of controls.
One repeated question: if driver's ed is mandatory, why not gun-handling classes? Frazer said voluntary gun-safety classes, such as those offered by the NRA, produce better results.
Youths from larger cities tended to support more restrictions on guns, while those from smaller towns and rural areas backed more access.
"People kill people," said April Pearce, of Glendale, Ariz., admonishing Beard for not paying attention to the "demoralizing" of America.
Salisbury, the Easton, Mass., youth, said some gun restrictions are needed, but Beard's proposed ban on all handguns is too restrictive. He looks forward to the challenge of hunting bear and moose with a Magnum .44.
"You want a handgun ready when you face a charging bear," he said.
On the Net: Close-Up: www.closeup.org
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence: www.csgv.org
National Rifle Association: www.nra.org