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Christina Taylor Green's slaying has profound impact on Tucson children

By Philip Rucker and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 12:10 AM

TUCSON - The bodies of the six dead will be buried here beginning Thursday, and the first in a series of ceremonies set to take place across this grieving city will be perhaps the most poignant.

A 9-year-old girl who was recently elected to the student council, who went to a supermarket last weekend to meet her congresswoman and learn more about government, will have her funeral at a Catholic church just a few miles from where a gunman took her life.

The slaying of Christina Taylor Green has had an especially profound impact on the children of this desert city. At memorials across Tucson, kids and their parents have left teddy bears and yellow daisies, candles and get-well-soon balloons. They've written cards, drawn peace signs and tied ribbons.

Adults have grappled with how to explain to confused children why a strange man would allegedly shoot and kill Christina for no apparent reason. At Mesa Verde Elementary School, teachers consoled Christina's distraught classmates, who have covered a fence near the jungle gym with messages for the third-grader.

"Christina, we love you from the bottom of are [sic] heart," read one.

"You were always a sister to me . . . and always will be," wrote her best friend, Serenity. She included a picture from their first sleepover.

Since Saturday's shooting rampage, children have passed by University Medical Center, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and other victims are being treated. At a vigil on the hospital's front lawn, kids have left letters that are testimonials to their innocence.

"Dear Gabrielle Giffords," sixth-grader Briana Aruizu wrote in pink ink. "I am sorry you got shot. I am glad you are safe in the hospital. . . . Christina Taylor Green is in heaven now. I did not know why all of this happened to you. I am so sorry."

Isabel Lopez, 11, left a note to Giffords in a blue box on her way to school Tuesday. Her class made a prayer chain Monday, and Isabel's message quoted Gandhi: "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

"I hope she can look out her window and see all of this," Isabel said. Her mother, Maria, tearfully looked down at Isabel. Earlier this week, after watching the news at home, Isabel asked her mother, "Are we safe in Tucson?"

"Yes," she told her. "It is just one sad individual."

Susie Huhn, executive director of Casa de Los Ninos, a nonprofit group that works with neglected children, said Tucson's young are asking, "Why is my world all of a sudden turned upside down?"

"People at this point in time are still very numb," Huhn said. "But I think the long-term feelings of how kids are going to react to it and what they'll feel about it we have yet to see."

In other parts of the country, some people searching for answers have linked the deadly events to gun violence. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), a longtime gun-control advocate, are proposing legislation to prohibit high-capacity magazines, such as the kind authorities say Jared Lee Loughner used Saturday.

But here in Arizona, home to some of the nation's most permissive gun laws, many people say the carnage must be blamed on a madman, not a weapon.

In classrooms throughout the Tucson area, teachers have talked with students honestly and simply about what happened. A team of psychologists went to Mesa Verde Elementary to help students especially troubled by the shootings, but school officials said most children have shown striking resilience.

Teachers have intentionally avoided direct discussions of guns, said Todd Jaeger, general counsel of Amphitheater Public Schools.

"Guns kill people the way spoons make people fat," Jaeger said.

Many children here grow up with firearms as a regular, and safe, facet of daily life. Four blocks from Giffords's district office, two gun shops - the Armory and Second Amendment Sports - coexisted peacefully with an elementary school for decades. They attracted notice only once, when a student tried to persuade a shop to remove a holiday sign depicting Santa with a pistol.

On Tuesday, as the city prepared for a visit by President Obama, Dan Cohen brought his 12-year-old daughter to a downtown shooting range to practice hitting targets with his M9 pistol. She learned to shoot two years ago, he said, and he takes her to practice once a week.

"I'd rather have a weapon at my side and not need it than need a weapon at my side and not have it," said Cohen, noting that guns are safely stored in their home.

At the hospital vigil, Angela DeSoto came by with her daughter, Nevaeh. They had watched the news unfold on television, and Nevaeh was troubled by the violent death of a child.

"I feel sad because [Christina] was only 9, and I am 8," Nevaeh said. "When we first heard about it, we prayed. . . . A couple of days ago, I saw her mom on TV, and I was sad for her."

The shooting "tugged on kids' hearts more," DeSoto said, but she found it difficult to find a balance between talking with Nevaeh about violence and wanting to protect her.

"You don't want them to grow up in a bubble, but you don't want them to become desensitized because they're overexposed," she said. "I wanted to show her she could be proactive - come, write a message, take a picture."

ruckerp@washpost.com hedgpethd@washpost.com

Staff writer Sari Horwitz in Tucson and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.

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