“Children killing children.” The very phrase is chilling. But what can the law do about a six-year-old who shoots and kills his first-grade classmate? According to our Anglo-American legal heritage of common law, not much. Children under the age of seven are presumed not to be able to know the difference between right and wrong, and thus are not held criminally responsible for their actions. This can be superceded by statute, however, and in Michigan, where the latest such instance (at this writing) occurred, there is no lower age limit on criminal prosecutions. (This is true of 22 other states as well.) Nevertheless, the prosecutor for Genesee County, where the Buell Elementary School is located, has made clear his belief that both the victim and the perpetrator in this case are to be pitied, and that punishment is inappropriate.

The six-year-old shooter came from a troubled family, to put it mildly, and was, at the time of his misdeed, living in what the media described as a “crack house.” He found his weapon, a .32 caliber semiautomatic handgun, on a bed, left there by a 19-year-old “roommate” of the boy’s “legal guardian.” his uncle. Prosecutors are now bringing charges of involuntary manslaughter against the roommate, on the grounds that his gross negligence and recklessness in leaving a loaded handgun where the six-year-old could find it is what caused the loss of life.

This may satisfy public sentiment to do something, anything, but it is unlikely to prevent another such tragedy. Not surprisingly, the shooting immediately became fodder for the current presidential race. Vice President Al Gore demanded legislation requiring child-proof trigger locks on handguns and castigated George W. Bush and John McCain for not concurring. President Clinton used the occasion to condemn the National Rifle Association and to press Republicans in Congress to pass further restrictions on gun ownership. Whether the roommate was the kind of fellow who might have removed a trigger lock from his (apparently stolen) gun before leaving it for a child to find is a question that did not seem to enter either the President’s or the Vice President’s mind.

This tragedy and other school shootings might have been prevented but for the current educational dogma that we should “mainstream” troubled or challenged youths into regular public school classrooms. It’s not unusual to find classrooms populated with “special attendants” hired to supervise individual children with “special needs.” The attendants’ job is to make sure their charges don’t harm themselves or others while they “benefit” their classmates through the educational experience of coping uneasily with each other. The six-year-old perpetrator in the Michigan case, according to the New York Post, “is a monster who has been in serious trouble at school from Day 1, [h]is father is in jail, [and] his mother is an admitted drug addict.” According to other reports, the little boy had a brother who was abused by their mother. It does not seem unreasonable to infer that the boy and his victim would both have been better off had he been placed in a special educational environment more attuned to his needs.

There seems little the law can do to prevent such tragedies. Like so many matters of domestic policy, this one is best left to local governments. Through experimentation, they just might be able to create some policies to discourage reproduction by those unable adequately to care for their young, to remove children from the houses of crack dealers, or to enforce effectively the gun laws we already have.

Remarkably, such experimentation might actually be bearing fruit. While the sensationalizing of youth violence continues apace, there is evidence that the actual incidence of such crime is on the decline. Random acts of savage behavior, especially among the urban underclass, have been the norm throughout most of American history. Candid social scientists confess that we still don’t understand the root causes of crime or social pathology. There are still those who believe that the problem is either genetic or environmental, but there are also an increasing number who say it is ineradicable evil itself.

Social tinkering around the edges of the problem won’t accomplish much; institutionalization is both expensive and politically unpalatable. The United States now has more of its population incarcerated than does any other leading industrial nation, and placing tiny felons behind bars is unappealing. Felonies seem to be committed less frequently by those with a greater stake in the community, and moral, spiritual, cultural, or even economic response to the Michigan tragedy may be more promising than legal ones.