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The American Way
A visual report on kids and guns by Times staff photographers


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 1999

Emotion plays across the face of 7-year-old Dustin Gober as he points his toy cap pistol at a friend. The boys were playing in front of Dustin’s house in New Port Richey last fall. Later, he aimed the gun at the heads of several other children in the neighborhood. “I got you!" he shouted, pulling the trigger. “I got you!" Dustin’s mother, Colleen Gober, says her children are taught gun safety and that the family has hunting guns that are locked in a cabinet. Dustin plays role-playing games with toy guns and is allowed to aim at people while doing so, she says. “We let him play Army, and that’s okay. Who knows? He may be in the Army someday. He knows the real guns and he knows the toy guns. I believe he knows the difference between playing and real violence."

A spoor of violence -- rare, meaningless, impossible to forget -- permeates our schools.

Fear of guns creeps along corridors. Killer children have shot down their schoolmates as if they were so many alien enemies in a videogame.

A society that has always had guns and has been comfortable with them is no longer sure it can keep them under control.

Photographers from the St. Petersburg Times have roamed the Tampa Bay area, taking pictures of kids with guns, adults with kids with guns.

The pictures are both troubling and reassuring. At least they show there are concerned people out there, that some are trying in their various ways to deal sensibly with guns and violence, and that we are not yet stranded on the slippery slope.

Once, school safety was more easily achieved. In 1950, a list of the five worst disciplinary problems in American public schools was published.

It seems almost comic now. The high crime of tattling led the list, followed by gum-chewing, running in the halls, inappropriate clothing and failing to put paper in the wastebasket.

Reality these days is ugly enough, especially since the highly publicized shootings on school grounds of the last two years. Yet, statistically, school killings are rare and even declined in the past five years, according to figures released by the Children's Defense Fund.

Indeed, children are more likely to be killed in their own or their friends' homes than in school, the CDF declares. They are three times more likely to be killed by an adult than by another juvenile.

In Florida, a child is killed by a gun every two days, the same killing rate as Georgia's but lower than in New York, where a child is killed by a gun every day.

Other states put Florida to shame, including Hawaii, where the rate is "only" one child killed by firearms every 65 days.

* * *

Wearing almost as much "fruit salad" as a member of the West Point Class of 1950, Master Sgt. Catrina Nickelson, 17, is ready to admit that her parents were right in making her join the Junior ROTC at Plant City High School. "Now you can’t get me away from it," she says. "I used to be the quiet one. It broke me out of my shell." She is on the ceremonial firing squad that presented a 21-gun salute during the East Hillsborough Memorial Day program. There is a grim inevitability in Catrina’s learning about guns. In 1990, the first husband of her mother, Brenda Boling, was shot dead during a robbery. "I didn’t want (my children) to turn out like the 13-year-old who shot my husband," Boling says.

* * *
A gunman’s bullet took Ashley Mance’s life while she was sleeping, but she had her 7th birthday party anyway. Ashley’s mother decided to bring her little girl’s friends and relatives together at her grave, "so they could remember her life." Ashley’s twin, Aleesha, sang the Happy Birthday song. Later she said, "Ashley’s with Baby Jesus now." Aleesha, recovering now, was sleeping with Ashley when the bullet tore into both their bodies. In the picture, Aleesha, center, is blowing out the candles on the big cake with white icing. Her mother, Yahaira Carattini, is at right, holding the plastic cake cover. At left is a younger sister, Jailene Jones, 4, who was in bed with the twins that night. The bullet, from a .30-caliber semiautomatic Norinco rifle fired in the alley next to the house where they were sleeping, grazed her ear. At the graveside celebration, Jailene seemed a little confused. "Is it still Ashley’s birthday, too?" she kept asking.
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