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Sunday, November 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Survivors Of Columbine Tragedy Speaking Out On Political Issues

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Rich Castaldo seems an unlikely poster boy for the gun lobby.

He was one of the first students to be shot at Columbine High School in the massacre that left a dozen classmates, a teacher and the two gunmen dead in Colorado.

He was eating lunch outside the school when he was shot several times - "Was it eight? Nine? I don't remember. It was a lot," Castaldo said.

Castaldo was the last wounded student to leave the hospital; he's now paralyzed from the chest down. Stickers with peace symbols adorn his wheelchair.

Yet there he was at the U.S. Capitol last month, flanking Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah at a news conference accusing the Clinton administration of lax enforcement of gun laws.

His father told the crowd that his son asked after the shootings, "What good would passing more laws do if they don't prosecute people who break them?"

Castaldo is just one of several Columbine survivors who have trekked to Capitol Hill in the six months since the April 20 shootings:

Darrell Scott, the father of slain student Rachel Scott, told a House Judiciary subcommittee in May that the student killers, not guns, were to blame in his daughter's death.

Six Columbine students were among a group of teen-agers who met with President Clinton and members of Congress in July to lobby for stricter gun control laws. "I do not want anyone else to lose a friend or a loved one like I did," said Columbine student Erin Flynn.

Columbine student Heidi Johnson, who was in the library where most of the killings happened, spoke in July at a Capitol rally for supporters of posting the Ten Commandments in public schools. "When kids are killing kids, it's time to go back to the things our country was founded on," she said.

"Victims are almost becoming the new celebrity," said child psychologist Robert Butterworth of Los Angeles, a veteran of the television news and talk show circuit. And that celebrity guarantees more attention for the political arguments backed by people such as the Columbine victims.

"They (celebrities) will get you far more attention than the world's greatest expert on that subject from a university or a think tank. It's that simple," said Steve Hess, an expert in the media and politics at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Castaldo paused for a long moment when asked after the September news conference if he thought Columbine victims were being exploited by those with a political ax to grind.

"It seems like you can make any point you want to, and this could be a good example of that," Castaldo said.

Interest groups know that Castaldo's observation is correct, and that motivates some of the use of victims as spokesmen, said former congressional staffer Jerome Climer.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the strategic planners in every major context are combing the countryside to look for that symbol," said Climer, president of the Congressional Institute, another Washington think tank. "A lot of groups do spend a lot of energy looking for that personality. Because it's a big country . . . if you look long enough, you'll find him."

Still, just because Columbine students are speaking out on issues does not mean they are being exploited, said Roger Hartley, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

"Students these days are very smart," Hartley said. "It's hard to say they are being used. That says they don't know what they are doing."

Having victims speak out for a cause also can make critics think twice about appearing to further traumatize the victims, Climer said.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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