Six shot in school as Senate votes on guns

GUN VIOLENCE erupted in another suburban American high school yesterday, one month to the day after the fatal shootings at Littleton, Colorado, that so shook the nation. Six pupils were injured in the latest incident, at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, and the assailant, said to be a 15-year-old at the school, was arrested.

The shootings happened just after 8am, as classes were due to convene for the day. Witnesses said that the boy, armed with a handgun and a rifle, walked into the school entrance hall and unloaded the rifle apparently at random, before being disarmed by a teacher. He fled into into nearby woods, where police apprehended him within minutes. Hospital spokesmen said none of those injured was seriously hurt.

News of the shooting reached Washington just as President Bill Clinton and his wife were preparing to travel to Colorado to commemorate the one- month anniversary of the multiple killings at Columbine High School with pupils, teachers and parents.

Twelve pupils and a teacher were killed and eight pupils seriously injured when two senior boys detonated home-made bombs and sprayed the school canteen with gunfire, before shooting themselves. The investigation is still in progress and the school was so badly damaged that pupils are completing the academic year in neighbouring premises.

Mr Clinton said the new incident was "deeply troubling" and "should underscore how profoundly important it is that all Americans come together in the face of these events to protect all our children from violence". Citing the national campaign against youth violence that he and Mrs Clinton had inaugurated at a White House forum 10 days before, he said: "We have got to do this."

Mr Clinton, who had been advised not to go to Littleton until the first shock had been dulled, was expected to couple his characteristic heart- to-heart with the victims and their families with fresh pleas for tighter gun controls. One effect of the Littleton killings, where two teenagers had been able to amass a veritable arsenal, had been to put the powerful US gun lobby on to the defensive and galvanise gun control advocates in the Democratic Party to push for stricter firearms regulation.

The new shooting incident came as the Senate was preparing for its eighth straight day of debate on additional gun controls and speeded what had been an impassioned argument towards a conclusion. By mid-day, the Senate had completed the last two votes on a package of new restrictions on gun purchase and ownership, including the extension of personal background checks to individuals buying guns at gun shows and pawn shops, and the mandatory provision of safety locks on all new handguns.

Passage of the final amendment provided a moment of consummate political theatre (and deft political management by the Democrats) as Vice-President Al Gore used his casting Senate vote to break a tie. Mr Gore has rarely used his vice-presidential prerogative to preside over the Senate, but he arrived at the chamber yesterday to take the chair after the White House apparently anticipated the closeness of the vote. After announcing the vote was 50-50, he said: "The Vice-President votes in the affirmative", and banged his gavel.

With his presidential campaign off to a slow start, the occasion provided Mr Gore with a compelling clip for his presidential campaign video. It also gave him an opportunity to present himself as a champion of "the children and families" and a foe of "the easy availability of guns" - issues uppermost in the minds of voters.

While hailed by their supporters as evidence of an historic shift in opinion on firearms, however, the new controls - which were framed as amendments to an existing juvenile crime Bill - had been exceptionally hard fought, with southern and rural Republicans resisting every inch of the way. During more than a week of fractious debate, the balance of advantage had swung to and fro by the hour and Mr Clinton had used his White House pulpit first to shame, then to scold, and then to commend the Senate for its action.

And as Republicans were quick to point out, the new restrictions will not necessarily prevent shootings like those at Littleton and yesterday at Conyers, which both bear striking similarities to fatal school shootings elsewhere in the US over the past 18 months. All the schools were high- achieving suburban schools in expanding, predominantly white suburban areas. The gun-toting pupils were seen by their contemporaries as "outsiders" and several had previously threatened suicide, murder, or both.

As in the earlier incidents, the pupil allegedly responsible for the Conyers shooting - as yet unnamed because he is a juvenile - was regarded as a quiet loner and had already threatened suicide. A girl who knew him was quoted as saying: "When they saw it was him, they weren't surprised."

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