By Catherine Clabby
Brevard Police Chief Phil Harris learned decades ago that tragedy can occur in seconds when firearms are left unlocked at home.
While Harris was growing up in Gastonia, a fellow high school student found a family member’s semi-automatic gun at home.
After yanking out the handgun’s magazine, she was unaware a bullet remained in the chamber.
She figured the weapon was harmless. So, when she aimed the handgun at a friend and playfully pulled the trigger, it fired, struck her friend in the chest, and killed her.
“There’s nothing police can do to undo something like that,” Harris said. “What we can do is give families simple education that help families prevent such a tragedy.”
Harris is one of several volunteers who helped develop a new statewide gun-safety project supported by the state’s Child Fatality Task Force. The initiative steers clear of anything as controversial as new gun control measures.
Instead, it would educate gun owners about an existing law that requires them to keep guns out of the hands of unsupervised children. The initiative would hand out gun locks too, to help get them get the job done.
“Ensuring that kids are safe is common ground,” said Michelle Hughes, task force member and executive director of NC Child, which promotes child health and safety.
Reducing gun deaths
Children in North Carolina are less likely to die from any preventable injury today than they were 25 years ago. Their death rate declined 45 percent between 1991 and 2016.
Still, 210 children up to age 17 died from gunshot injuries here between 2010 and 2014. Among kids up to age 14, guns were the weapons used in more than 35 percent of the suicides and 25 percent of homicides that took the kids’ lives. Guns were deployed in almost 50 percent of suicides and more than 90 percent of homicides among kids aged 15 to 17.
Guns are common in North Carolina. About 40 percent of residents own firearms, according to the most recent state data. State law requires gun owners living with kids to limit their access to their weapons. Specifically, it forbids leaving firearms where kids can pick one up and use them to cause harm, whether that be menacing others or shooting themselves or someone else.
Lots of gun owners don’t abide by the law. The most-up-to-date state data, from 2011, found about half do not use gun locks or put them in locked storage when at home. Some 60 percent of those who do not were parents.
Developed before the recent Parkland, FL high school shooting ignited a national debate about gun safety, the proposed “lock-them-up” initiative was developed by a mix of volunteers with very different relationships to guns, including Harris, an anti-violence activist, National Rifle Association members, public health researchers and more.
“What we’re talking about here is ensuring guns are properly stored so children and youths cannot have access to them and put themselves and others at risk of harm,” Hughes said.
The plan the task force supports would require $155,700 in state spending over two years for the state Department of Health and Human Services to launch the initiative.
Built in part with guidance from research on how to help people change their behavior, it would help gun owners understand that a gun left within reach of a child could do harm in anyone’s home, including their own. At the same time, it would stress that eliminating such a risk, in this case with a gun lock, is easy to accomplish.
The fact that a relevant law already exists will aid the mission, said Kelly Ransdell, a Public Education Specialist with the National Fire Protection Association, who was among the volunteers on the project.
“There is a whole segment of people that if they know about the law, they will abide. That’s what happened with bike helmets,” she said.
The task force proposal supports the creation of online content where North Carolina residents can learn how to protect children and teenagers from firearm-related death and injuries, including where to acquire free or discounted gun locks or lock boxes. It would create an information toolkit that communities across the state could use to educate residents.
One option could be to have a public service announcement that counters the belief that very young children are too weak to fire a gun, said Harris, the police chief.
“Can 2-year-olds pull a trigger? Of course they can,” he said.
People who do lock up their guns may well influence others simply through example, Ransdell said.
“Work like this can make a difference to one family. That can grow to a community and a county and a state,” she said. “Limiting gun access can become part of our culture without getting into the tense conversations that can occur around this issue.”
Correction: In the original description of the shooting which opens this story, Brevard Police Chief Phil Harris recounted that the shooting occurred during the school year. With research, he learned it occurred in July.