Shootings deserve our attention every day

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Kayla Peterson, a 22-year-old Beaver Falls woman, was shot and killed this month after telling a trio of teenage boys to "get a job" when they tried to bum a cigarette from her fiance.

Within hours of Ms. Peterson's death, photos of Marcus Velasquez and Todavia Cleckley, both 14, turned up on Todavia's Facebook page. In a photo insert, Todavia poses with a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol, neither of which could possibly be registered in his name.

Although police said Marcus had been identified as the actual shooter, the photo of Todavia clutching guns in both hands is particularly chilling. He looks like a kid with dead eyes trying too hard to come off as a hard-as-nails thug.

A 13-year-old who had been with Marcus and Todavia when Ms. Peterson was shot in the stomach turned himself in. Somehow, Marcus and Todavia managed to stay one step ahead of the law until the fugitive task force caught them hiding in a friend's living room in Beaver Falls 10 days later.

Because Beaver Falls is a small place where everyone knows everyone, the families of the accused have already reached out to the victim's relatives with condolences and apologies.

Meanwhile, Kayla Peterson leaves behind a grieving fiance and a 23-month-old child who will have only the sketchiest memories of a long-dead mother. Everyone will probably agree that Ms. Peterson's killing, whether intended as a cold-blooded murder or not, represents a profound loss for her family and the community.

So, why didn't it resonate like the murders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last week? Is it a matter of scale and intention? Does it have something to do with community expectations? What about the ages of the accused in the Beaver Falls shooting? Doesn't that warrant some comment and a little bit of ritualistic breast-beating about the evil of guns in the wrong hands?

Newtown hadn't seen a murder in years, but Beaver Falls isn't exactly Somalia, either. Even though it had only one murder last year, the killing of Kayla Peterson barely registered a flicker elsewhere.

There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but it may be too early and too difficult to discuss when the children murdered in Newtown are still being buried.

Still, there's a psychosis at work in the lives of two 14-year-olds accused of killing a young mother that is just as profound as the homicidal alienation that drove a 20-year-old to shoot up a classroom full of 6- and 7-year-olds last week. It mirrors the disregard for life reflected in the escalating murder rates in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, although we instinctively feel it is cut from a different cloth. Why is that?

Why can't the same analysis that has been applied to Newtown in recent days -- the intersection of guns with our violent popular culture and our lack of resources in dealing with mental illness -- be applied to every shooting and murder in the country?

Many of my readers point out with barely contained fury that the number of young people killed by illegal handguns and semi-automatic weapons every year in urban and rural America dwarfs the body count of these periodic massacres, sad as they are. They aren't being unsympathetic about those who lost loved ones in Newtown last week, but they want someone to explain the discrepancy in outrage.

No less a scoundrel than Rush Limbaugh made a point this week that many crusaders against gun violence in urban America will find themselves uncomfortably agreeing with: "Chicago has been averaging more murder than happened in Newtown every month this year," Mr. Limbaugh told his radio audience.

"The murder toll in Chicago is projected to reach at least 500 for this year. There are more than 41 murders a month in Chicago. The lion's share of them are taking place in poor black neighborhoods. I don't hear the Rev. [Jesse] Jackson or any of the anti-gun media that we're hearing from now raise a stink about guns in those places. I wonder why that is? There has to be a reason," he said.

Mr. Limbaugh is wrong, of course. There are meetings, marches and rallies against gun violence almost every week in these communities, but the issue doesn't get the media focus or critical mass of attention it deserves.

Every discussion about gun violence should honor relatively anonymous victims like Kayla Peterson as well as the children and teachers of Newtown.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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