Friday, October 02, 2009


Give a Boy a Gun

By Todd Strasser

Written in the wake of the Jonesboro and Columbine rampage killings, this teen fiction book digs into the background of a fictional school shooting and the boys behind it. It is written as the interview notes of a reporter who went to the town and spoke to children, parents, and school faculty members who recalled what they could of the boys going years back, as well as the events of the hostage-taking. Among those notes, in footnotes at the bottom, are interspersed statistics and small facts about other real-life shootings, gun fatalities, and plenty of quotations from the documentary “Making a Killing, “ about the arms industry.

The book itself, I thought was quite well done. I know a lot of parents might react to this with horror, wondering why kids need to read about it. There are a few answers there. One is that it’s a fear our kids live with, a fact that hovers in the background of their lives at school now, the worry behind every lockdown. One school in the area my library serves has had two already this year. One based on a toy gun that was rumoured to be real, and one on a bomb threat. It’s October 1st as I write this, less than one month in. So yes, we may wish kids didn’t have to think about it, but they do.

So. With that said, this book manages not to glamourize the boys or the event, nor does it make it into a horror show. I really thought the author pulled the punch at the end, in fact, so there is very little in the way of gore. What is most shocking in the body of the book is the anger in the shooters and the entitlement in the in-crowd of jocks and the way the faculty support it.

For all that, though, Strasser does drive home a point hard, time after time. He just doesn’t use the body of the work to do so, which I appreciate, because there is little worse in terms of enjoyable reading than a book with a purpose. Instead, he hammers away at you with the facts, all the more chilling for being true. That gun deaths kill more children than all diseases combined. That for 1995, in seven states, there were more shooting deaths than traffic fatalities. That in 1995 alone, more Americans were killed by firearms than soldiers killed in 3 years of the Korean War and well over half of the number of soldiers killed during 8 years in Vietnam. (If you have seen the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C., that last fact is staggering, because you have a visual for it.) That military analysts have noted strong and marked similarities between “shooter” video games and training used by the military to break down soldiers’ resistance to shooting another human. And over and over, the seeming indifference of arms manufacturers, who continue to market guns whose only logical use can be to kill people, not to mention the tactics used to sidestep attempts to regulate their product.

Taken whole, it gives recommendation for things that need to change, it indicts the gun lobby strongly, and it shows not sympathy, but a level of understanding for how this can come to pass when conditions in a school or community are just the exact recipe for such a disaster.

If you worry that such a book might provide instruction or glamourize this kind of action, I would say I think it is not providing what kids who are wondering about it are looking for. Instead, it feels more like a call to action, a heads up about the need for change. It’s a good read, and a tricky balancing act is handled well here by Strasser.

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