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January 17, 2005

Insert "Or Are You Just Happy To See Me" Joke Here

One Dead After Teen Party Turns Deadly

Well, this seems typical, apart from the fact that the story hits a little closer to home than normal, involving as it does a rivalry between my alma mater and its historic archrival. Mom probably taught the three suspects, or siblings of theirs. There other thing that sets it apart.

The Wildcats stomped the rival Louisburg Warriors 84-54 on Saturday night in front of a sold-out home crowd of 1,500. Philippeaux, a 17-year-old senior, led the audience in a pre-game prayer before making seven rebounds and four points during the game. Hours later, he was killed instantly by a stray bullet as he left a party that had turned violent.
Fliers passed around at the game invited Bunn High School students to a house party in southern Franklin County for a victory celebration, Franklin County Sheriff Jerry Jones said. The invitation told students not to miss the party, as it would "be something to remember," Jones recalled the flier saying.

At least one carload of young men from Louisburg crashed the party; one visitor packed a loaded SKS 7.62-caliber assault rifle in his pants, Jones said.

Who sticks an assault rifle in his pants? The SKS in any of its various incarnations isn't a small gun. Yes, it's small town in the Red-State South, but still, that ain't normal. It's akin to walking around with a fencepost in one's pants--nails and all. It practically screams "I am a dangerous doofus" out to the world.

Yet despite the fact that probably ever other partygoer at this shindig had a cell phone, it does not appear as if anyone called the cops until after the fatal shooting.

The intruders scuffled with several Bunn students inside the mobile home at 30 Lana Circle in Louisburg. "The fight started because someone made a comment about the Louisburg boys dancing with the Bunn girls. That's why the shoving started," Jones said.

The party crashers were asked to leave, and as they did, one of the men fired several shots into the air. Most partygoers lingering in the front yard ducked.

Why not? It's not the famous southern hospitality you hear so much about. It was because the party was full of kids, and they'd been drinking. It's the same reason no one said a word to the boys in blue when one of Al Capone's boys got frisky in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The thug in question may or may not end up cooling his heels downtown, but you yourself will definitely end up in the pokey.

Teenage drinking laws today are not much more than Prohibition writ small, and so bring with them the same lawlessness and danger that Prohibition brought to the rest of America eighty years ago. It didn't work then, and it's not working now. The difference is, since the problem no longer affects society as a whole, we've decided to ignore it; aside from a nominal amount of hand wringing each time like this one or the one above comes out.

What to do? The same thing we did before. End prohibition.

When drinking is legal, they argue, it takes place in the open, where it can be supervised by police, security guards and even health-care workers. When the drinking age went up, the spigot wasn't turned off, it was simply moved underground--to homes or cars or frat-house basements--where an adult could keep an eye on things. When kids who are drinking on the sly do venture out, they often "pre-load" first, fueling up on as much alcohol as they can hold before the evening begins so that the buzz lasts as long as possible. As for the reduction in traffic fatalities? Skeptics believe it may have less to do with changing the drinking age than with the new mores about drunk driving and the more aggressive enforcement of DUI laws.
"The 21-year drinking age has not reduced drinking on campuses, it has
probably increased it," says Middlebury president John McCardell.
"Society expects us to graduate students who have been educated to drink responsibly. But society has severely circumscribed our ability to do that."

Other college administrators share McCardell's frustration. "If there were an 18- or 19-year-old drinking age, we could address the issues more favorably," says Dartmouth College President James Wright. As it is, "we can't go around sniffing students' breath or smelling their cups." Despite their complaints, college heads have been disinclined to make a public case for lowering the drinking age, knowing how controversial that would be.

"But wouldn't lowering the drinking age lead to more drinking, not less?"

It's doubtful. As with smoking pot, any teenager who prefers to drink is already able to do so, and as the amount of actual drinking on campus is overestimated, the perceived peer pressure to drink is greater than what actual peer pressure would be.

Some possible objections.

"But wouldn't lowering the drinking age lead to more alcoholism down the road?"

Again, doubtful, though this argument has a basis in reality.

Dr. Wilson explained that adolescents are not yet young adults and that their brains are not fully wired until they are at least 21 years old. According to Dr. Wilson, the last part of the brain to develop is the area that enables a person to plan complex projects, hold several thoughts at once, and inhibit inappropriate impulses.

Dr. Wilson noted that while the brain is developing, it is easy for kids to become hooked on anything pleasurable, especially drugs and alcohol. The dopamine level dips during the teenage years and because drugs and alcohol raise the dopamine level, they are particularly potent during adolescence. Addiction, he explained, comes from normal brain activity; when a person anticipates a reward, the brain provides the tools to get it.

Dr. Wilson warned parents that alcohol is highly toxic — it is deadly at five times the legal limit. Kids are also more vulnerable to alcohol addiction than adults because they feel less sedated and are therefore able to stay awake to drink more.

Full disclosure: Dr. Wilson is a member of my church, so I'm familiar with his work. One part of his lecture boils down to this; the longer one can go without drinking--or partaking of any drug, from pot to nicotine to ecstasy--as a teenager, the less likely it is that one will become addicted to that drug, as the wiring in the teenage brain is more susceptible than that of the adult.

Dr. Wilson also holds that there are different types of addiction, mental as well as physical, so don't feel the need to write and harangue me about how pot is not addictive. I smoked enough in college to know he knows what he's talking about.

Once again, if there is less perceived pressure to drink, fewer teenagers will be doing so, and what drinking there is can be spread out over time and monitored rather than rushed and in secret. Which sounds like a more addictive activity, six beers spread out over an evening, or six beers slammed down a half hour before going out? Addiction aside, which sounds like the more dangerous activity?

Which would you prefer your kid do? Yes, there's always the chance that your child will be one of the few that doesn't drink, but in reality that's kind of a faint hope. You can rest assured that, given today's climate, they will most certainly tell you that they--and all their friends, surprisingly enough--never indulge, and they'll stand by that statement through thick and thin.

Even if it means not calling for help when someone arrives at the party with an assault rifle in his pants.

Postscript: One thing I remember from Dr. Wilson's talk was the importance of teaching your teenager to how to calculate his/her blood alcohol levels--whether they claim to be teetotalers or not. A BAC of .35 brings a significant risk of death with it, not just from alcohol poisoning, but from inhaled vomit, the bacteria from which can infect and destroy a lung even if the drinker avoids pulling a Hendrix. A number of deaths occur from the pneumonia caused by inhaled vomit every year, but they tend to escape media notice as they are not directly associated in time with an episode of alcohol abuse.

For a 110 pound girl, that blood alcohol level is the equivalent of eight drinks in an hour; eight shots, eight beers or a couple bottles of wine. Don't think that that's a lot of alcohol to imbibe over an hour--college students and younger do that and more every day. Here's a handy online calculator, if you would like to figure out what it would take to reach that level for your body weight.

Posted by Bigwig at January 17, 2005 03:20 PM | TrackBack
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New York used to have a drinking age of 18. Surrounding states had 21, and were always complaining because their 18-21 year olds got liquor in New York and had accidents near home. Of course, in New York City, you could drink without driving.

It would be interesting to see if alcoholism rates differed among young people in similar communities (say, suburbs) when the two different rules applied.

My parents let me drink, say a glass of wine or a bit of sherry, when I was a teenager. Their theory was that what's not a mystery or a forbidden fruit is less likely to be abused.

There's a lot of evidence that patterns of alcohol use and abuse are culturally mediated. I don't know what recent studies show, but years ago there was a Boston study that showed lower alcoholism rates among the Jews and Italians than the Irish, the theory being that alcohol was integrated into Jewish and Italian culture differently.

I suspect you may be in a part of the country where there's teetotalism on one side and guilty alcohol abuse on the other.

Posted by: Grumpy Old Man at January 18, 2005 05:57 AM

Grumpy, me too (on the being tried out on alcohol early). I think it helped, because now I see assorted alcoholic drinks more as foodstuffs that ought to be enjoyed for the combination of taste and bodily impact than as drugs to take for their intoxicating effect. And I got through college (in the UK) without a hitch as far as that goes.
Britain is, despite the 18 drinking age, having a few problems with underage overdrinking: I pray that doesn't mean that a drinking age of 21 is on the cards.

Posted by: TheaLogie at January 18, 2005 12:34 PM
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