What can the US learn from the shoot-out at the zoo?

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The Independent Online

Another shooting of children by children in America. This one took place at the National Zoo in the nation's capital city on Easter Monday, at the end of the annual Afro-American Family Day. The cause seems to have been jostling between rival gangs of youths that escalated into a fistfight, before someone pulled out a gun and others did the same. Seven boys, aged between 11 and 16, were wounded, and one of them has a bullet lodged in his brain. He has been put on a life-support system waiting to have his organs removed for transplantation.

Only last week, the nation marked the first anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, in Colorado, where 15 students, including the two killers, died. The list of similar killings, at schools, on the streets, at fast-food restaurants and other notionally peaceful locations extends back as far as memory will allow. Fifty years ago, before guns were so prevalent, there were knifings that took place during "rumbles" between teenage gangs (see West Side Story for the musical version).

The problem is partially the ready availability of guns, and it is good to see that this problem is becoming an election issue between the two candidates for the presidency - even if Al Gore's instant comment about the need for "child-safety trigger locks" seemed somewhat beside the point. The important change is that the Democratic Party seems to have decided that it is no longer electorally necessary to fear contradicting the views of the National Rifle Association. However, the social erosion that leads young people to want - and to use - guns is also a significant issue, and a more mysterious one.

How can such an open and democratic society be so desperately unable to control its worst impulses? Is it the money that lies behind the gunmakers and dealers? Is it the cultural heritage of the frontier? Is it the unsettling mélange of different races jostling for supremacy in a land with little to unite them but a shared winner-takes-all ideology?

America has long been synonymous with whatever is modern and trend-setting. Now, however, the rest of the world watches in fascination and in fear that it may yet see its own future in this energetic but maladjusted land.