This month, a teacher in Newport News, Virginia, was severely injured when one of her first-grade students, only 6 years old, pulled out a handgun at his desk and shot her at close range.
Although the event generated national attention, it took four days for the media to learn a highly pertinent fact -- the child obtained the weapon used in the shooting, a 9 mm Taurus handgun, at home. It had been legally purchased by his mother.
It’s highly unusual for a school shooting to be committed by such a young child, but the source of the weapon is far more common.
Credit: Thomas C Balfour
Credit: Thomas C Balfour
One of the worst school shootings in American history involved guns taken from a parent’s home. Ten years ago, in Newtown, Connecticut, a 20-year-old shot and killed his mother in the home they shared. Then, armed with her firearms, one of which was an AR15-style assault rifle, he shot his way into nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed six additional adults and 20 first-grade children.
The shooter in Parkland, Florida, also employed also employed an AR15-style rifle that he purchased at age 18. One year later, he took it to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he killed 2 adults, 15 students and seriously wounded 17 others.
Most Americans do not realize that a large majority of guns used in school shootings come from the shooter’s home. Years ago, an Atlanta-area police officer told one of us that nine out of every 10 guns his department confiscated in his county’s schools came from the student’s home. At a local PTA meeting he urged parents, “If you take care of your 90 percent, we’ll deal with the other 10 percent.”
He was not exaggerating.
A recent analysis of 168 mass shootings that was funded by the National Institute of Justice determined that more than 80% of shooters who attacked a K-12 school used a gun taken from a family member because they were not old enough to purchase one on their own. Another study conducted by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center examined 37 school shootings involving 41 attackers. In nearly two-thirds of the incidents they analyzed, the attackers used one or more gun(s) obtained from their home or the home of a relative. In a few cases, the gun was a gift from the student’s parents.
One reason guns are carelessly stored is that many parents overestimate their child’s capacity for self-control. A study of 400 Atlanta-area parents found that the median age at which they trust their own child with a gun is 9 years. The median age at which they trusted other people’s children with a gun is 21.
Rather than work with parents to promote safe storage of firearms, many school systems are focusing on costly-but-unproven strategies such as installing metal detectors and cameras, tightening access controls, placing school resource officers (or even police) in schools, and periodically conducting “active shooter drills” (which probably traumatize children more than they help).
We can do better.
If every gun-owning parent or guardian of a school-aged child securely stored their own firearms, it would go a long way toward reducing school shootings. It would also make America safer for children. In 2020, the CDC released mortality data that revealed firearm-related injuries had overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents aged 1 to 19.
The rest of us would be safer as well.
Nationwide, households lose guns to burglary or theft about 250,000 times per year. Once stolen, a gun is easily passed from one criminal to another. A survey of incarcerated people found that 56 percent of those who possessed a firearm during their criminal offense either stole it, found it at a crime scene or obtained it on the underground market.
The evidence is clear. Because everyone wants to reduce school shootings and keep their kids, grandkids and their young friends safe, the most helpful thing all of us can do is lock up our guns. This will ensure that guns are available to their law-abiding owners and much less likely to be misused.
Arthur Kellermann, M.D., M.P.H., has served as an academic emergency physician, public health researcher, medical school dean and health system CEO. From 1993 to 2010, he was on the faculty of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Emory University and worked at Grady Memorial Hospital. He now lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Stephen Hargarten, M.D., M.P.H., is an academic emergency medicine physician and professor who has studied firearm-related deaths and injuries for over 30 years. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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