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Please Help Avert Any More Tragedies

For once, it never got to the bad part.

So this week at Princeton Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Md., all 18 children in Mrs. P’s kindergarten class are alive to enjoy their handcrafted valentine cutouts. Eighteen whole and healthy kids can still practice words that begin with Mrs. P’s “letter of the week.”

No school custodian has nightmares about having scrubbed stubborn red stains from a classroom floor.

It never got to the bad, bloody part in Mrs. P’s class on Feb. 3. So this lucky kindergarten teacher who was stunned to discover one of her students furtively showing friends a loaded .380 semiautomatic handgun - can’t even visualize the tragedy that might have been.

“I can’t imagine it because it didn’t happen,” explains Mrs. P, 37, who asked that her name not be revealed. “I’m glad I’m naive that way. … Maybe if it had happened to another teacher, I’d be more scared or angry.”

Before that Friday, Mrs. P, who just started teaching full time last year, had never seen or held a gun. So at first, she assumed the dull, black object handed to her by the 5-year-old - “a quiet boy who didn’t realize he could hurt somebody” - had to be a toy.

But the “toy” was heavy enough to make her suspicious. She and the child were holding hands, walking to the principal’s office, when the truth hit her.

“If I’d known at first that it was real,” she says, and that, according to police, a 5-year-old could be strong enough to pull the trigger, “I might have panicked.”

Last week, Patricia Lynn Walton, the child’s mother and owner of the gun, was charged with two counts of violating a state law forbidding a minor to have access to guns. She could face a $1,000 fine on each count. If convicted, Walton should pay the $2,000 fine with a beatific smile on her face. Whatever your circumstances, a couple thou is a pittance compared with what you would pay, year after agonized year, if your child, or someone else’s child, had been shot.

Even when it ends happily, the story of a 5-yearold bringing a semiautomatic to school evokes vivid, horrific images. The only person I know who heard about it and didn’t imagine a tragedy is the teacher whose actions may have averted it.

I imagined it. Just as I did a few months ago, when I read that a first-grader unknowingly took a gun to school after his dad, a cop, forgot to remove it from the child’s book bag.

No one was hurt. But what I imagined made me shiver.

It reminds me of what my younger son, now 9, used to say when we’d go to the movies. Whenever a scary, potentially bloody scene began, Darrell would cover his eyes and whisper, “Tell me when the bad part is over.”

But sometimes, imagining the bad part is as bad as seeing it.

Today, just scanning the newspaper is a temptation to cover one’s eyes. What’s reported often is so gruesome, so off-the-charts awful, many of us feel powerless in the face of it.

But the often tragic result of small children getting their hands on their parents’ guns is one horror show we never have to see. This one bad thing we can stop.

Do you have a gun? Do you know someone who does? If so, have you made sure that it’s absolutely inaccessible to children?

If you haven’t, you’re setting the stage for a scene that no amount of eye-covering can erase. Once you get to the bad part, you will never forget what you see.

Or that you could have prevented it.

Asked what might have happened that Friday, Mrs. P - whose blessed naivete won’t let her envision such evil - said only this:

“I have three children, and I think I’m important to them. The 17 other children in that class have families, too. The boy walked to school with the gun; there were kids out there.”

She stopped talking. But the picture was clear.

Oh, Mrs. P said one more thing. Asked what the “letter of the week” was that students were studying that Friday, she hesitated, then almost laughed over life’s weird irony.

“It was G,” she said.

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