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Their names were Natalie, Brittany, Stephanie and Paige Ann. In photos they wear fresh, impish smiles of 12- and 11-year-olds peddling Girl Scout cookies or heading for a pajama party.

You look at their pictures -- and the placid smile of heroic teacher Shannon Wright, who shielded another child -- and every face comes at you with a jolting puzzle. The faces of the dead ask, "Why?"

Answers don't come easy. The faces strike you with baffled anger. Why would a couple of pint-size Rambos in camouflage outfits grab an arsenal of rifles and fire 27 high-powered slugs -- as though the crowd of school children was just a video game?

Shooting mayhem by a crazed adult can be unraveled by shrinks. But kids blowing apart kids is ultimate, numbing horror. We're stumped how innocence got twisted into evil. Until we know the nightmare visions in the heads of Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, we grope in the dark.

Maybe it will come down to guns. It usually does. Hard to imagine the Jonesboro, Ark., kid murders happening anyplace but America, where weaponry is ubiquitous as Big Macs.

Maybe Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, got close to the truth in blaming this on an epidemic of TV and movie violence. "I don't know what else we'd expect in a culture where children are exposed to tens of thousands of murders on television and movies. We've desensitized human life," he said. "It's a cultural disease."

He's right. A National Television Violence Study says gunfire and gore on TV isn't declining. Worse, says Northeastern University criminologist James Fox, are computer and arcade videos in which kids play-act at wasting people.

In TV crime shows, gangsta rap and videos, victims get knocked off cleanly: No pain, gaping wounds, screams. Is that what the Arkansas tyke shooters saw on the school ground -- symbolic targets?

Or maybe we should blame schools. They don't gear up enough security, cops and metal detectors. Don't spot and counsel troublemakers before the firing starts. Sure, in hindsight, there were signals the Arkansas boys were destined to explode.

The 13-year-old told a girl, "Tomorrow you find out whether you live or die." He vowed to shoot a sixth-grade girl (who survived) because she broke up with him. "Nobody breaks up with me," he boasted.

It's no shock the kid assassins weren't taken seriously. The national average is one counselor for 800 middle-school kids.

What about parents? Early accounts say parents of the 13-year-old shooter were hard-working, middle-class folks, both postmasters. And yes, the dad raised his boy as a hunter and competition marksman from age 6.

In the end, it may come back to guns -- too many of them, too easy for a kid to grab and go bonkers, a culture where shooting others becomes TV fantasy.

The 13-year-old's grandfather said in a CNN interview the boy stole three rifles from him. It doesn't matter. Guns are a way of life in Arkansas -- 75 percent own them.

Will we ever do anything about this ballistic epidemic? Oh, the Jonesboro effect will dwindle. There'll be no disarmament or even toning down the firepower while the National Rifle Association cowers politicians.

Except for "deep sorrow," the NRA stonewalled as though the kids used slingshots. "Lawful gun ownership had nothing to do with this tragedy," insisted spokesman Bill Powers.

Sure, there'll be hand-wringing by congressional blowhards. They won't defy the NRA while campaign bucks flow.

Look at Australia, a tough, gun-happy country. A couple of years ago a nut case killed 35 people in Port Arthur. Within two weeks, the country banned sale and possession of assault-type guns and pump-action shotguns. Not in America.

"If the Jonesboro tragedy doesn't move Washington beyond tears and into action, what will?" fumed Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Nothing, senator.

You can blame TV crime shows, bloody videos, school counselors and parents. But the Jonesboro horror will fade -- until the next child goes berserk.

Those smiling faces of Natalie, Brittany, Stephanie and Paige Ann ask for answers. They'll get silence.

Philadelphia Daily News

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