March 27, 1998 in Nation/World

Guns A Way Of Life For Boys In Arkansas

Jeff Gammage Knight Ridder
 

Tuesday, when 11-year-old Andrew Golden wanted some guns, he allegedly broke into his grandfather’s house and took three rifles, four handguns and several boxes of ammunition.

The boy, charged along with 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson in the deadly shootings at Westside Middle School here on Tuesday, could have gotten similar weaponry from almost any other home here. In this community, guns are as common as Bibles.

And the deadly school attack, in which four students and a teacher were killed, has not shaken Jonesboro’s belief in the right to own firearms.

“This is a part of the country where it’s unusual if a child doesn’t grow up going out with dad and granddad to go hunting, and maybe using some very powerful weapons,” said Bill Sadler, an Arkansas State Police spokesman. “People enjoy their hunting privileges, and they say they don’t want something like this to ruin those privileges.”

Here, father-son deer hunts are a rite of passage, with children too young to drive toting shotguns into the woods. Many people own not one gun but five or six.

And they don’t blame guns for the tragedy that has left them planning five funerals for today and Saturday.

“The problem is not guns,” said local criminal defense attorney David Rees, dismissing suggestions that tighter firearms laws could have prevented the killings. “That’s a real easy answer.”

Even the parents and relatives of the four girls and one teacher killed Tuesday had little to say about gun control at a meeting with prosecutors Wednesday evening.

Sadler said the only gun-related question raised at the meeting was whether the rifles and pistols apparently stolen by the boys from Golden’s grandfather had been properly secured inside his home.

People across Arkansas love to hunt and fish; a million people roam the woods during deer season.

Residents of the flat farmland around Jonesboro have good reason to be big on hunting. The town lies just 50 miles from the Mississippi River and is on the “Mississippi Flyway,” the migration route for ducks and geese.

Here, hunting is not just a sport but also a lucrative industry. Every winter, tens of thousands of hunters come to the Arkansas Delta to shoot ducks. Many also come to hunt deer in the autumn.

“You see guys in their pickup trucks with three weapons in the gun rack all the time. It’s just the culture around here,” said Marvin Buerkle, the publisher of a small weekly newsletter.

This is a region where illiteracy and teenage pregnancy are considered problems, but gun ownership is not.

The view being expressed in Jonesboro on Thursday, in coffee shops and on radio talk shows, was that danger comes not from the gun shop but from society, which intrudes via television, exposing young children to violence, sex and degradation, ruining their sense of right and wrong.

“They - gun control advocates from outside - don’t understand things quite like we do,” said Rees, who went hunting with his dad at age 6 and today has six guns, including two 12-gauge shotguns and two pistols. “Hunting in the South is a bonding experience.”

This week, in the wake of the school shootings, officials from the governor on down have demanded harsher penalties for children who commit violent crimes. But there has been no call for new gun restrictions.

Under state law, children under 14 cannot be charged as adults. If a court finds they are delinquent, they can be held until age 21, though typically they are released at 18 - even if the crime is murder.

That’s led Gov. Mike Huckabee to join the call for examining tougher sentences. But Huckabee was not talking about gun control.

It’s uncertain how many people own guns in Arkansas and how that compares with other states. No government agency keeps statistics.

But if hunting licenses are an indication of gun ownership, then Arkansas is a big gun state.

According to the National Rifle Association, in 1996, the latest year for which statistics are available, Arkansas issued 379,000 licenses - about one for every six residents.

That ranks the state among the national leaders on a per capita basis.

Nationally, the rate of gun ownership is highest in rural areas, according to Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc.

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