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Teenagers and guns

December 16, 1998

Last Friday's shooting death of a 16-year-old boy in Martinsburg, W.Va. was not only a tragedy, but a reminder of what prosecutors in Berkeley County say is an unpleasant truth - that too many young people have access to handguns. We agree with the National Rifle Association that the solution is not more gun control, but more police and parental control.

We take that position because it's already illegal for any West Virginian under the age of 18 to carry a handgun. To obtain a weapon they're not legally entitled to carry, teens must steal them from parents, friends or relatives or buy them illegally on the street.

Guns in the home are a simple matter; those who can't spring for a gun safe can certainly afford the trigger locks now available to prevent a gun from being fired by anyone who doesn't have the combination. Like it or not, the time is coming when anyone who doesn't disable their weapons in this way will be liable for damages should someone else misuse them.

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The problem of illegally purchased weapons is tougher; if teens purchase illegal drugs without parents' knowledge, what's to stop them from buying a gun out of the trunk of somebody's car? Three things, in our view.

The first is more aggressive law enforcement. If police exhibit "zero tolerance" for minor crimes and put teens on notice that they're going to be subject to searches, they may decide to leave the guns at home. The second thing teens need is education about what happens to those who break this law and to those who get shot. A few student assemblies featuring those convicted of illegal weapons possession (and some gunshot victims) might be enough to get most teens to forgo weapons.

But in the final analysis, deterring teens from illegal activity depends on caring parents who can explain that life's toughest choices often confront us at an early age. Kids need to be told that carrying a gun illegally can lead to an incident that wipes out any opportunity for a better life, or in the worst circumstances, for any kind of life at all.

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