Kid Killers (June 3, 1998)

Once again a disturbed child has taken weapons to school in order to kill. The Oregon media is now filled with commentators airing analyses and theories on why it happened and how to prevent further occurrences of random violence.

Briefly, on May 21, a 15-year-old boy named Kipland “Kip” Kinkle, armed with semi-automatic rifle and two handguns, entered the cafeteria of his high school and sprayed 51 rounds of ammunition into the crowd, killing one student immediately and wounding over 20 others, leaving several in critical condition, one of whom has since died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Before this outburst, the youth had shot and killed his parents, leaving their bodies in the family’s lovely, tree-surrounded home. Identification of the bodies was delayed as police first had to disarm a total of 20 explosive devices in the home. On entering, they found five bombs, a hand grenade and materials and instructions for making bombs garnered from both books and the Internet.

The day prior to the shooting Kinkle had been suspended for possession of a firearm on school grounds, and released to the custody of his parents. He apparently had no prior encounters with the law but after his arrest he reportedly lunged at an officer with a concealed knife he’d taped to his leg and had to be subdued with pepper spray.

This was no “Inner City” tragedy. Springfield’s Thurston High School appears to have few or no students of minority races. The boy’s parents were not welfare bums or criminals. Nor were they drug addicts or alcoholics. Both were popular, well-respected members of the town of Springfield, a pretty suburb of 50,000 souls near Eugene, Oregon. Both were high school Spanish teachers who enjoyed taking their vacations in Spain. There is one other sibling, a sister, who is attending college in Hawaii. Nothing more has been mentioned about her.

In interviews with Kinkle’s schoolmates conflicting evaluations describe him as both “weird” and “normal.” He was fascinated with guns and weapons. He signed his Yearbook with the comment “Evil Empire.” Some fellow students dubbed him “The student most likely to start World War Three.” His motto was “Don’t tread on me.” His web page contained the numbers 666. He had a terrible temper. His girlfriend said, “If you were sad, he’d do stuff to make you laugh and cheer you up.” Another student claimed he boasted of torturing animals. He “loved to hunt.” He was a good looking kid.

His teachers said he was “an average student,” and a quiet child. He had been diagnosed with both depression and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder); had counseling a year ago and had been on Prozac and other medications. He was on the football team. Nobody, as far as they knew “hassled or messed with him.”

His grandmother said that “Kip was a troubled boy,” and that his parents were in despair about his behavior.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (who flew to Springfield from Salem for the first news conference) said this wasn’t a Springfield problem, but a “national, societal program” and that although more and more prisons had been built and more police had been hired, funds for intervention, prevention and treatment centers had been cut by the state legislature. President Bill Clinton described this and other similar shootings of children by children as “symptoms of a changing culture.”

A teacher said that one of the problems was the lack of counselors, now reduced because of budget cuts to only one for every 700-800 students. Another wondered if our present high schools have become too large for people to keep any kind of track of individual students. (Thurston has approximately 1,500 students.) 

(Writer’s note: The English “high school” (known as Grammar School) I attended had a total of only 250 students and was the largest in what would be a three-county (Shire) area.)

Predictably, in the past few days everyone has been looking for something or someone to blame for the Thurston killings (and the other recent schoolyard shooting throughout the country). As most of the reasons preferred by politicians don’t apply (neglectful or unfit parents, poverty, inner city crime and decadence, welfare bums, unemployment, drug-alcohol-spouse or child abuse), the only scapegoat left seems to be violence on television, in the movies and on many of the most popular video games. (The students being fired upon at first thought it was all “just a prank”… indicating to one commentator that our children have been desensitized to gunfire and the sight of a rifle-wielding assailant.)

The local tv channels, as a contrast to the scenes of blood and shock that marked the onset of the terror and mayhem at Thurston High, broadcast an interview with the Ryker family, the parents and brother of the “hero” of the shooting — Jacob Ryker, a handsome jock who, in spite of being seriously wounded himself (currently in the hospital in “serious” condition with a chest wound) managed to tackle and wrestle Kinkle to the ground when he saw that the shooter was temporarily out of ammunition and would have to re-load. If he hadn’t acted so heroically, it was almost certain that the casualty list would have been even more horrendous.

His father, wearing a baseball cap embroidered with the initials of the NRA (National Rifle Association) said that his son was able to choose the right instant to intervene because of his familiarity with firearms and asserted somewhat defensively that he didn’t feel “guns were the problem.”

This is a popular stand with Second Amendment defenders, hunters, loggers, and many others. These stalwarts often sport the familiar decals on their SUVs and pickups that say things like “This vehicle defended by a .357 Magnum,” “Never mind the dog, Beware of the Owner,” and “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold, dead fingers.” For this is a country where most households contain weapons for either sport or defense or both. (Not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that.)

On the other hand, letting problem adolescents legally possess semi-automatic rifles does seem rather irrational, even when the avowed purpose behind these guns is to hunt. (Even though expert hunters tell me that the idea of blasting away with such a weapon and achieving only one clean kill after expended 51 bullets and leaving over 20 targets wounded says little for anyone’s marksmanship skills. They also feel that telescopic sights, range-finders and other technological innovations violate their ethics as outdoorsmen and remove any element of “sport.” They inform me that responsible hunters would stalk their prey until they are close enough to fire one well-placed shot — not blast the poor animal to shreds.)

But incredible as it seems, troubled 15-year old Kinkle was the legal owner of the semi-automatic rifle and handguns. 

Nobody, from the Governor to the parents of the slain victims of Kinkle’s rampage, even dared to suggest that something as Un-American as some form of gun control might be a good idea.

Many other nations feel otherwise, of course. For example, “The Star” of Johannesburg wrote that “…in 1992, handguns killed 33 people in Great Britain, 60 in Japan, 13 in Australia and 13,200 in the United States.”

Of course, that’s just “handguns.” With semi-automatic (let alone modified full automatic) rifles and bombs in the hands of children and psychos, we’ll be able to do much better in the future.

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