Preventing school shootings starts with gun safety at home

Many school shootings, such as last week's at Sparks Middle School in Nevada, involve a child taking a gun from home to school. A concerted effort must be made to improve gun safety at home, to research why kids kill with guns, and to pass parental-liability laws.

Andy Barron/The Reno Gazette-Journal/AP
Students tie ribbons and yellow carnations along a fence at Sparks Middle School where they attended a memorial for teacher Michael Landsberry in Sparks, Nev., on Oct. 24. A student of the school shot and killed Lansberry and wounded two other students last week.

A school shooting that left a teacher in Nevada dead last week brings the number of such shootings in the United States to 17 since last December’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn. Also last week, a Washington state boy was arrested after he brought a gun and 400 rounds of ammunition to his middle school.

As Americans reflect on these horrifying events, we should also consider how preventable they were. In fact, many of the school shootings this year and in the past could have been prevented with just common-sense safety measures in the home – no new legislation or rules needed.

The gun used in the shooting in Sparks, Nevada – which left the teacher and the shooter, his 12-year-old student, dead and two classmates seriously wounded – was a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic handgun that was apparently taken by the child from his home. While it isn’t yet known exactly how he gained access to this dangerous weapon, it is highly likely that serious safety measures were not put in place by the parents, allowing an immature mind to once again wield terrible power.

In the last year, this devastating scenario has played out again and again. School shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minn., in 2005, and Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997 also involved legal guns taken from the home, used by young people who clearly should not have been able to carry them to school as easily as they would a packed lunch. Sadly, it is perhaps more surprising that these incidents don’t occur more regularly. A 2005 study on firearm access in America showed that 1.69 million children under the age of 18 lived in homes with loaded and unlocked firearms.

Newtown, of course, was also made possible by a parent’s apparently irresponsible behavior as a gun owner. Although the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, was not actually school-age when he murdered 26 people at the school, he had easy access to an armory of weapons, even though his own brother questioned Lanza’s competence and other relatives described him as “not well.”

Illegal guns should be America’s No. 1 public-safety concern, and new laws are badly needed to eventually curb the violence they allow. But it is unacceptable that legal guns continue to be nearly as deadly as illegal guns when responsible firearm ownership is all that is needed to prevent many of those deaths. Not only are murders like the ones in Newtown and Sparks more likely to happen without better safety measures, but so are accidents: 89 percent of unintentional shooting deaths of children are in the home and usually when children are playing with a loaded gun without their parents present.

To fix this, Americans can take simple steps to block firearm access to children and to prevent the worst kind of carnage.

First and foremost, a concerted effort among state governments, firearms dealers, law enforcement, health-care workers, and gun manufacturers must be coordinated to ensure that as many gun owners receive basic safety information and warnings about irresponsible firearm storage as possible. Right now, there are various separate attempts at education, which are clearly insufficient. These groups can, and do, disagree mightily about the use and proliferation of guns in this country, but they can all certainly agree that targeted education to prevent so much death is badly needed. Together, under a unified message and strategy, they will be more successful.

Second, Americans must invest in more research to better understand why children use guns against others and how to stop them, including risk factors, incident triggers, and effective interventions. Part of this research must also focus on the increasing links between social media and juvenile violence, and how violent behavior online – such as taunting posts on Facebook and Instagram photos and videos – may interface with devastating real world consequences.

Finally, there are legislative solutions to pursue as well. “Child access prevention” laws impose specific criminal liability on adults who negligently allow kids to access their firearms. Studies have shown that these laws reduce both unintentional firearm deaths and suicides of children in the states where they are enacted. Twenty-eight states have these laws.

The parents and relatives who have enabled children to use their guns to kill surely feel remorse, and may even face criminal and civil prosecution for their negligence. But Americans, too, should feel responsible when these heart-breaking deaths occur because we have not done enough, as a country, to prevent them.

We will never be able to prevent all gun violence, but we can certainly do more as a society to prevent the most needless kind – and we can start with simple safety.

Richard Aborn is the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice and public safety policies and practices.

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