Opinion: Politicians fortify schools rather than regulate guns

A memorial for the 19 children and two adults killed May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is a reminder of a sad reality in America. (Lola Gomez / Tribune News Service)

Credit: Lola Gomez

Credit: Lola Gomez

A memorial for the 19 children and two adults killed May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is a reminder of a sad reality in America. (Lola Gomez / Tribune News Service)

America’s vast and unchecked personal arsenals of guns have given us a shameful distinction: We are the only developed nation that now teaches its kindergartners how to wait in line for the bathroom and hide under desks for a mass shooting.

The United States leads the world in firearms per capita with more guns than people, according to the Small Arms Survey. The survey shows American civilians own more than 393 million guns — 120.48 guns per 100 U.S. residents. And we are not safer.

School shootings climbed to the highest number in two decades in 2020-2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2020, guns became the leading cause of death among children, adolescents and teens, surpassing car crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, a first grade teacher in Virginia was about to read a story when police say a 6-year-old in the class pulled out a 9mm handgun and shot her. Teacher Abigail Zwerner, 25, suffered life-threatening injuries, but is recovering.

“When will the shock of gunshots in school be enough to inspire the action necessary to prevent guns in schools and the shattering of lives it causes?” asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, after the Virginia shooting.

The silence of politicians around stronger gun laws suggests this latest round of gunfire in a classroom will not lead to real preventive measures.

After a teen in Uvalde, Texas, murdered 19 students and two teachers in May with AR-style rifles he bought only days earlier, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said, “The thought of something similar happening in one of our places of learning is one of my heaviest concerns, one that I ask God to guard against every day.”

Kemp never mentioned that gun laws here are so weak that Georgia is a leading exporter of crime guns to states with stricter regulations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traces some guns found at crime scenes. In 2021, 20,472 of those guns traced back to Georgia.

Instead, Kemp outlined plans to harden and fortify schools rather than to keep guns from children or restrict assault weapons. Fortifications — surveillance cameras, armed officers, metal detection, random searching — don’t prevent school shootings. Research shows the $2.7 billion spent each year nationally on hardening schools hasn’t decreased shootings.

Without any meaningful government response to limit gun access, schools have little choice but to do what they can. New data from the federal School Pulse Panel reveals 74% of schools in the South have sworn law enforcement police officers in their buildings at least weekly, and 86% have behavioral threat assessment teams. Nationwide, the survey shows more schools installing interior door locks, alarms and panic buttons.

But those measures don’t go to the heart of the problem. Too many children live in homes with guns in nightstands, on closet shelves and under mattresses. The gun in the Virginia school shooting was legally owned by the 6-year-old’s mother, according to police.

Parents maintain their children don’t know where they hide their firearms or key to gun cabinets, but, much like with Christmas presents and dad’s old Playboys, children figure it out. Studies by the U.S. Secret Service found most school shooters got their firearms from the home of a parent or close relative. In about half of the shootings, the gun was easily accessible or not stored securely.

The danger of guns in homes is not just that students will sneak them into school. Guns in the home are linked to higher suicide rates among kids and teens. A 2019 study of youth suicide rates found for each 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by 26.9%.

A recent study of firearm suicides among youths 17 and under found 82% used a family-owned gun. About two-thirds of the weapons had been stored unlocked. When the guns were locked, the children knew the combination, where the key was or broke into the cabinet.

A study by Harvard School of Public Health said suicide is often attempted “in a moment of brief but heightened vulnerability ... it does save lives by reducing the deadliness of those attempts.”

At a U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing in December, 22-year-old Faith Mata, whose 10-year-old sister Tess Mata was killed in the Uvalde attack, asked: “Are we not tired of hearing of yet another tragedy because of gun violence?”

Since America failed to act 24 years after Columbine, 10 years after Sandy Hook, five years after Parkland and eight months after Uvade, I think the answer to Mata is “no.”