In Mt. Morris Township, Mich., where a first-grader murdered a classmate last week, the stage seemed set for violence. The shooter, 6, lived with his uncle in a flophouse where thugs and junkies drifted in and out. The boy's father is in jail on a parole violation related to a burglary rap. The gun the boy used to shoot 6 year-old Kayla Rolland was stolen. His teacher told reporters the boy was "aggressive." A classmate called him "a bully." His father told police the boy enjoyed violent movies and fought with classmates because he hated them.
In a neighborhood marred by crime, residents were not surprised when sirens screamed toward Buell Elementary School. They were shocked only by the shooter's age.
Yet, despite overwhelming evidence that the shooting was incubated in a soul-sick environment of drugs and violence, politicians and activists quickly distilled the death of a first-grader into a forum on gun control.
Within hours of the shooting, President Clinton blamed Congress. Mr. Clinton's assessment of a shooting committed in a drug-infested neighborhood with a stolen handgun containing three bullets: "I'm still waiting for Congress to close the gun show loophole ... to stop importation of these large capacity ammunition clips and to require child safety locks on guns." He also wondered aloud why the first-grader's gun-which the boy reportedly found in the flophouse under a pile of dirty blankets after it was left there by criminals-wasn't itself secured with a child safety lock.
The gun-control blame game also played out on the state level. Michigan law already bans guns in schools and allows locker searches. At least 659 students have been expelled from school under a 1995 state law covering weapons on school grounds. But state representative Vera Rison, a Democrat whose district includes Buell Elementary, used the incident to lash out at the GOP: "When is the Republican leadership in the legislature going to hear the cries of parents from across our state who are concerned about keeping guns out of the hands of children, and out of the hallways of our schools?"
Such rhetoric, says political science professor William Allen, is a misguided attempt to sidestep personal responsibility and the wages of a culture locked in moral free-fall. "When you have 6-year-olds shooting 6-year-olds, you're not talking about crimes anymore, you're talking about moral decay," says Mr. Allen, who teaches at Michigan State University, which is about an hour's drive from Buell Elementary. "What we're seeing here is a society at its wit's end. [Public officials] go immediately to increasing gun control because they don't have any other answers, and certainly can't take any responsibility."
Mr. Allen believes the U.S. school violence epidemic is rooted in a culture that has mortgaged the value of human life: "A single message is getting through: Children are not valuable. That message is trickling all the way down to the youngest members of society."
San Diego minister Larry Warner agrees. During five years patrolling urban Los Angeles County as a deputy sheriff, Mr. Warner says he saw daily evidence of lonely, frustrated kids using guns to make themselves feel whole and powerful. But he also points out that, as in the case of the Columbine shooters, familial disenfranchisement visits homes all along the socioeconomic ladder: "It traces back to the family unit. These [L.A. kids] were without supervision, living in an atmosphere without unconditional love, without boundaries, without security. A gun is a way of saying, 'I have power. You have to listen to me.'"
No one, apparently, had been listening much to the boy who killed Kayla Rolland, a vivacious, church-loving first-grader whom relatives described as "fearless." Her killer had been suspended from school at least twice, once for fighting and once for stabbing a girl with a pencil. After his mother was evicted from her apartment, he had moved into the rundown drug-house with his uncle and 8-year-old brother. Witnesses say drugs and weapons flowed through the house in a constant stream. Stained, tattered curtains flapped behind broken windows patched with garbage bags. Mud-caked trash surrounded the ramshackle one-story house where a rusting Camaro sat on blocks in the front yard.
After a playground spat Monday, Feb. 28, the boy evidently decided Kayla wasn't listening well enough. Before heading for school on Tuesday, he tucked a .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol in his pants. At about 10 a.m., after most of his classmates had lined up in the hallway to head for the library, the boy pulled out the gun and aimed it at Kayla.
"You move and I'll shoot," a classmate recalls the 6-year-old saying. He then fired, hitting Kayla in the neck. In the chaos that followed, the shooter darted out of the classroom, ducked into a boys' bathroom, and stuffed the gun in a trash can. A principal and a teacher apprehended the boy and held him until police arrived. During police questioning, he sat and drew pictures. Kayla died 30 minutes later at an area hospital.
"They've taken a young 6-year-old away from us, and there's not going to be any replacement," said Kayla's maternal grandmother Ingrid Janor, who wept as she spoke with reporters. "She had her whole future ahead of her. Now she's gone."
When the shooter's imprisoned father, Dedric Owens, heard about the shooting from a cellmate, "a cold, sickening feeling came over him because he knew it was his son," Sheriff Robert J. Pickell said. "He said [his son] liked to watch the violent movies, the television shows." School district officials did not comment on reports that the boy had been scheduled to receive "anger-management counseling" at school.
County prosecutor Arthur Busch said he planned to charge the boy's uncle, Sirmarcus Winfrey, in connection with police seizure of a loaded shotgun and illegal drugs found at the house. After the school shooting police arrested Mr. Winfrey on an unrelated felony warrant.
Mr. Busch said that because of the 6-year-old shooter's age, charges would probably not be filed against him. He said the state's Family Independence Agency had filed a neglect action as an initial step toward removing the boy from his parents' custody. But there was no word on whether any earlier steps had been taken.
Violence at schools has been dropping since it peaked in the early 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But incidents with multiple fatalities have become more common. The youngest shooter on record previously was 11 years old. The involvement of a 6-year-old raised questions nationwide about cultural decay. Michigan State's William Allen says there is no silver bullet to stop the culture's spiraling descent into violence, but only "the reestablishment of moral principle. If we're willing to accept serious moral judgment once again, we can begin to correct this."