The Bush administration Friday was quick to call for more security measures in the nation's schools as a result of the latest shooting, in which police say an 18-year-old senior armed opened fire Thursday and hit at least three students and two teachers at a San Diego-area high school.
Ashcroft's comments on guns, however, reopened a bitter chapter in America's larger gun debate, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
Appearing on NBC's Today, Ashcroft said, "All these guns that have been involved, at least in most of these situations, there have been guns that have been illegal. It's been against the law to have them."
In fact most of the guns including, it now appears, the ones used Thursday were not illegal at all. The revolver in the Santee, Calif., shooting two weeks ago; the handgun used that same week in Williamsport, Pa.; the one before that in Palm Beach and all of the guns in the Jonesboro, Ark. Case all were lawfully purchased at legal outlets.
In fact, according to a study by the U.S. Secret Service last year, "In nearly two-thirds of the (school) incidents, the attackers got the gun(s) from their own home or that of a relative. In some cases the guns had been gifts to the attackers from their parents."
"Handguns in the hands of at a school, for instance, example are simply illegal. So we have a lot of laws on the books that make this kind of activity illegal, the character of activity illegal," he told the CBS News Early Show.
Ashcroft also said that violent entertainment aimed at kids contributes to an ethic of violence," and he urged the media to help steer young people to a safer path.
Ashcroft said parents, school officials, law enforcement agencies, students and the media all need to promote a "culture of responsibility" that discourages children from lashing out with violence when they're angry or disenchanted.
He cited violent video games as part of the problem.
"The entertainment industry, with it's video games and the like, which sometimes literally teach shooting and all, we've got to ask ourselves how do we as a culture respond to be more responsible," Ashcroft said on ABC's Good Morning America.
"Even the news industry can report incidents like this in ways that maybe don't promote copycat replications," Ashcroft said on The Early Show.
Lawmakers have scolded video game makers for marketing violent games to children. Mindy Tucker, Ashcroft's spokeswoman, said the attorney general recently saw a clip of a video game in which players take on the roles of drug dealers shooting at police.
Ashcroft's comments drew fire from antigun advocates.
Mike Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national lobbying group, said, "Kids all over the world see the same videos, watch the same shows and it doesn't happen in countries where you have a strong national gun control policy."
"To ignore the role that firearms play and the easy access to them is irresponsible," he said.
While a U.S. Senator, Ashcroft opposed ban on assault-style weapons and most other federal steps toward tighter gun control.
His comments went to the heart of the gun debate under the Bush administration, which would prefer to focus on existing firearms laws as opposed to enacting new ways to restrict access to guns, such as mandatory gun locks although Mr. Bush has said he would sign legislation requiring mandatory trigger locks on all new handguns if Congress passes such a bill.
The problem, say some experts, with either passing new laws or strengthening enforcement is that neither approach represents a fool-proof way to restrict any angry adolescent from getting a gun, when all he has to do is go to his parents' closet.
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