Two years ago, on the first day of the school year, Bart, a 15-year-old sophomore in a Fairfield County high school, arrived home after school. No one was home. He went to the kitchen to retrieve a key from a cup kept over the stove. He proceeded to the guest room on the second floor, opened his father’s gun safe, took one of the five hunting rifles and committed suicide.
This week at the Brady Campaign National Summit in Washington, D.C., I heard first-hand an anguished father tell the story of how his well-adjusted 13-year-old son Cayman received an email from school about a failing grade. Some 30 years earlier the father had purchased a handgun for personal protection. It was hidden, with a trigger lock. The father didn’t even realize the son knew of the weapon. But he did.
The son took the gun, removed the trigger lock without a key and wrote a note to his parents. He went outside to wait, apparently believing his parents would come find him after reading the note. The parents didn’t find the note until after their son was found dead four days later, having committed suicide with his father’s gun. The father thinks about his son constantly and cries almost every day.
The deaths of these two young teenagers are not isolated events. Suicide is the third likeliest cause of death among teenagers. Nearly half of teen suicide attempts involve guns. Studies have revealed that as many as eight of every 10 teen gun suicides are with a parent’s gun.
Last week was National Safe Schools Week, but keeping our children safe is a duty no matter what week it is. It is our responsibility to provide them with safe environments at home, in school, and where they play. The threat of gun violence is, sadly, ever-present.
I remember vividly the fear my daughter experienced in 2013 when a Greenwich High School student claimed to have a gun in his backpack. The school went into a lockdown. Police arrived with weapons drawn. Even though the student didn’t actually have a gun, 2,700 students were terrorized. Just last week, the entire Fairfield public school system was in lockdown because of a threat of violence. That occurred just as Greenwich High School was carrying out a lockdown drill, the new normal that causes anxiety and stress even in the absence of active shooter incidents.
Although school shootings are still rare given some 140,000 schools in the U.S., guns being discharged on the grounds of schools and campuses across America are predictably routine. According to Everytown for Gun Safety, since the Newtown tragedy there has been an average of one every week.
One of the reasons for the prevalence of shootings in schools is the easy access that children have to their parents’ firearms. Based on statistics compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one out of three homes with children has guns, 55 percent of them left unlocked or loaded. While many parents believe otherwise, nearly three-quarters of children under age 10 report knowing where their parents’ firearms are kept.
With the prevalence of unsecured firearms at home, it’s no surprise that two-thirds of school shooters acquire the gun(s) they used from their home or that of a relative. Or that 80 percent of unintentional gun deaths involving children happen at home. What other country in the world sees more preschoolers shot dead than police killed by guns?
There is no reason we should accept this untenable level of young lives lost and families shattered.
These facts are an important reminder that as parents and guardians, we must do everything we can to prevent child gun deaths and injuries. Parents can take steps starting now to ensure that their child and playmates do not come across an unsecured gun. When arranging a child’s visit to another home, the Asking Saves Kids campaign urges parents to ASK, “Is there an unlocked gun in your house?” It may feel uncomfortable, but 19 million parents have made the commitment to do so for the safety of their children. I do it myself, and haven’t had a single parent take offense at the question.
Earlier this month Maykayla, an 8-year-old in Tennessee, was shot to death by her 11 year-old neighbor. She is just one of 566 verified incidents of children under the age of 12 killed or injured by firearms so far in 2015. I think the words of Maykayla’s neighbor get right to the point: “Trying to comfort her mama and her aunt and her grandma and her grandpa and her sister and her brother was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Ever had to do.”
If you have guns in your home, please ensure that your child does not have access to them by storing them securely. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents who choose to own guns should keep them locked, unloaded, and stored separately from ammunition. Connecticut law requires firearms to be securely stored in homes with minors.
Ask your local school district, independent school or PTA to communicate to parents about safe firearm storage and ASK. Be prepared to lobby hard — even in districts where students have committed a gun suicide there can be resistance to talking about firearm safety. Tell them that Laura Bay, president of the National PTA, is “proud to support the ASK campaign to help prevent gun-related incidents and keep children safe.”
Learn more about the ASK campaign by visiting www.askingsaveskids.org and pledge to always ASK before your child visits a friend, family member, or neighbor’s home. Let’s not add more Barts, Caymans and Maykaylas to the list of preventable gun deaths of our children.
Jonathan Perloe is the president of the Southwestern Connecticut Brady Campaign Chapter.
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