shows, from behind, a young boy holding up a firearm/ gun. No gun locks in sight.
Photo courtesy: Greg Westfall, Flickr Creative Commons

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’s death rates in North Carolina have come down steadily since the early 1990s, largely because of initiatives to improve child safety. Data/ graph courtesy: NC Child Fatality Task Force

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.

Data courtesy: Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, NC DHHS Credit: North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention

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.

Research-guided approach

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.

Data courtesy the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, NC DHHS. Credit: North Carolina Injury and Violence Prevention

“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.

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Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...

4 replies on “A Push to Lock Up Guns In NC Homes”

  1. It is exciting to read about this task force and their initiative to keep our kids safe. There have been too many events recently with guns in schools in NC, and it is vital that parents understand their role in keeping their weapons secure. I work with a program called BeSMART that teaches parents some of the fundamentals of responsible gun ownership, such as securing your weapons, modeling good behavior and more. I would love to have an opportunity to partner with this task force in getting this information out to more NC parents. Would it be possible to contact the members of the task force and find out how we can collaborate? Thank you!

    1. We must be watching different news feeds because I have not witnessed alarming trends of firearms found in NC schools.
      Locking up one’s firearms is common sense, especially if one has children (not necessarily one’s own), or grandchildren around. Trigger locks are OK but overkill if one keeps personal firearms in a safe or lockable cabinet.
      Unfortunately and until criminals stop walking the earth, a firearm should be immediately available to the homeowner when and if the need arises. When one awakes in the morning and leaves for work either take the firearm with you (if it is a handgun) or lock it up. This is common sense.
      We must also be careful not to turn NC into a police state by allowing police to burst into a residence for a warrantless search because another child or friend of the family “thought” they saw a toy pistol or look-a-like firearm on the playroom floor.
      I am not familiar with the BeSMART program however I am familiar with the “Eddie Eagle” gun safe program that the NRA (oops there is that scary acronym) has offered for years that teaches gun safety to kids and also what they should do should they find one (“Stop, DON’T TOUCH, go find an adult”) It is a very good program however it is in my opinion under utilized simply because it is associated with the NRA.
      I suppose my point is I completely agree with gun safety with or without children around. I also opine that many people purchase and keep a firearm for protection and said firearm is useless unless it is readily available.
      I do not agree with or believe the statistic that a firearm kept for self defense is more apt to be used against a family member and is worthless for protection. I have read many first person accounts where a firearm was used for self protection and to thwart a home invasion often without a sot fired. These accounts however never seem to make it to the mainstream media unless it involved heroic circumstances.
      I believe we can have an acceptable balance between safe storage and personal protection.

  2. Good column. Would have been better if the writer had mentioned that it is the Eddie Eagle Program, sponsored by the NRA, over the past 20 years, that has been the main driving force behind the huge drop in accidental shootings across the US.

    Accidental shootings are down to lows not seen since 1904, when a lot more homes had guns in them, and kids were taught to respect guns, not fear them.

    In the meantime, if you have any unsecured self defense pistols around the house, or even on your person (in a holster, for gods sake), put one pf these in it.

    It does not stop the purposeful use of a pistol, but it really helps stop accidental shootings.

    Be safe, be wary.

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