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School shootings leave US leaders feeling impotent

WITH FOUR pupils from Heritage High School at Conyers, Georgia, still in hospital after Thursday's shooting, America embarked on yet another inquest into why gun violence should again have shattered the peace of a suburban school. Top of the list of controversies were the availability of guns and the prevalence of violence in American popular culture, but the arguments do not stop there.

Addressing a rally in the Colorado town of Littleton on Thursday, commemorating one month after the deadliest school shooting in America's recent history, President Clinton told his audience of cheeringteenagers, many of them pupils at Columbine High School where 15 people died: "We know somehow that what happened to you has pierced the soul of America." And with yesterday marking the first anniversary of Kip Kinkel's rampage at Thurston High School at Springfield in Oregon - the last in the previous spate of school shootings - the stage was set for an orgy of introspection as only America knows how.

The firearms debate remains the most divisive, splitting south from north, the inhabitants of rural areas from those in big cities, the majority of Republicans from Democrats. But its sting was drawn this time by the passage of new gun controls in the Senate just hours after news broke of the Conyers shooting. Moreover, the police reported yesterday that the guns used by the 15-year-old pupil had been correctly stored by his parents in a locked cabinet.

How far such incidents are precipitated by the fictional violence that American children are exposed to every day is also the subject of heated debate. Bill Clinton has repeatedly raised the question and sponsored a White House forum after the Littleton shootings to consider issues relating to juveniles and violence.

As with guns, however, serious philosophical and commercial interests - from the First Amendment on freedom of expression all the way to Hollywood - are at stake, and Mr Clinton, who has received generous campaign contributions and political support from film moguls and stars - is not above the fray. When pupils themselves venture an opinion on their exposure to violence, their views tend to support those of the more moderate experts in the field. Their exposure to fictional violence does not itself cause teenage violence, but it may make violence seem ordinary and "de-sensitise" people to its effects.

The two teenage killers who went on the rampage at Columbine High had collections of violent videos and computer games and staged their own murderous film for a school project. But the question remains, which came first: did they seek out extreme experiences or did their exposure to fictional violence lead them to put it into practice? The shooting at Conyers, in contrast, appeared to be sparked by the end of a romance, and the teenager - according to witnesses - shot low in an apparent attempt not to kill anyone.

The soul-searching prompted by the killings at Littleton extended into aspects of American life rarely addressed hitherto. As Mr Clinton said in his address on Thursday, Littleton struck a nerve partly because of the scale of the slaughter, partly because Littleton looks like so many other suburban settlements. Now, Americans find themselves questioning the whole range of priorities and values that these quiet, suburban settlements were supposed to embody.

Maybe the cultural homogeneity of these mainly white, monotonously residential and mostly new districts results produces embittered misfits. Maybe the financial and career aspirations of these pupils' parents lead to the emotional neglect of the children.

Maybe the recent sociological attention to the esteem of girls has led to neglect of the needs of boys (all those firing the guns have been boys).

Whatever else the school shootings have done, they have prompted some of the most profound soul-searching in America since the Sixties.