Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece was submitted by Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub and Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA) Executive Director Penny Ettinger.
By Penelope R. Ettinger and Matthew D. Weintraub
Recent mass shootings and other gun-related tragedies have prompted strong opinions about what should be done. Less publicized, but equally tragic, is the fact that children are killed or injured by guns every day. No one wants this. Our children must be kept safe from gun violence, accidental or not. Change must happen at many levels, for we are all responsible for our children’s safety.
Consider the numbers: more than 740 U.S. children killed or injured by guns in the first three months of 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research and reporting organization. Nearly 1,300 children (ages 17 and under) killed by guns each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Gun violence truly is a national public health crisis.
According to Everytown.org, two million U.S. children live in homes where guns are not stored safely. Most gun owners state that it is important to keep their firearms accessible for self-protection. But improperly secured guns are far more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting, a criminal assault or a suicide attempt. Keeping guns from children and keeping guns accessible for protection need not be mutually exclusive.
There is so much we can do!
Ensure gun safety in your home: Lock It Up. Always lock up your firearms, and make sure children can’t get to them. Hiding guns without locking them guarantees no child’s safety. That was tragically clear on Sept. 12, 2016, when 2-year-old Benjamin Smith found an unlocked handgun in his father’s Milford Township bedroom and accidentally shot himself to death. His father, a military veteran well-trained in firearms, went to prison for manslaughter for not securing his weapon. From this sad case arose Ben’s Campaign, an initiative led by the Bucks County District Attorney and NOVA to provide free gun locks to any gun owner. Over the past year, more than 1,200 gun locks have been distributed by the Sheriff’s Department, Bucks County Children and Youth, and local police departments.
Don’t assume all homes are safe. Asking about guns, and their safe storage, in a home your child is visiting is not only appropriate, but should be routine.
Talk to your pediatrician about talking to your children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians talk with kids and parents about firearms safety in the home. If your pediatrician isn’t asking those questions, start the conversation.
Ask your school for violence prevention programs. Children who are bullied are twice as likely to carry weapons to school. The U.S. Youth Risk Behavior Study found that teens threatened or injured at school were six times more likely to carry a weapon to school. Forty-six percent of teens who reported bullying, who feared for their safety or who had been injured or threatened by schoolmates were likely to carry a weapon to school, compared to 2.5% of students who were not bullied. Anti-bullying programs promoting inclusion, empathy, teamwork and responsibility are essential in schools, and are available through organizations such as NOVA.
See something, say something. Whether a troubling message, a social media photo, or a conversation your child overheard at school, don’t ignore it. You could save lives by notifying an authority such as a school counselor or a police department. Help your children learn to recognize potentially dangerous information or situations and to alert a designated adult.
Make your voice heard. The vocal advocacy of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students is remarkable. Yet greater change will happen when all of us make our voices heard. Call, write or visit your state and federal legislators to support common-sense gun laws including universal background checks, raising the age for gun purchases to 21, and banning the sale of semiautomatic assault-style rifles.
We must come together, community by community. Gun violence is a complicated yet preventable public health epidemic. It will be solved when we work together. Leaders from public health, government, law enforcement, schools, community, clergy and mental health, among others, must join forces to find – and support – solutions to this national crisis.