After the incident in Newtown, my wife remembered a moment in her classroom with rare clarity.  It happened more than a decade ago when one of Louisville’s neighborhoods had been riddled with violence for a second consecutive weekend.  It was a neighborhood in which the majority of her students lived.  Judy remembers feeling an urge to ask an important question of her youngsters – “How many of you live in a home in which there is a gun?”  Almost three-fourths of the hands shot up.  Her next question was, “How many of you know where that gun is?”  Every raised hand stayed up.  And then a third inquiry – “How many of you have handled that gun?”  Nary a hand fell.

As we continue to grieve about and reflect on the tragic shooting at Newtown, we face both the opportunity and the obligation to think about guns and kids.  Yes, there are other sides of that equation.  We need to challenge those who point only to guns to challenge Hollywood and video game creators on the latent but very real impact their business models have on children.  Professionals and political leaders simply must engage and act around a broad reform of mental health in this land with attention to access and quality.  We must tackle the hard job of thinking through protocols to prevent, to identify, and to heal our fellow citizens beset with mental health issues.  There are other sides to this issue that invite innovation.  For instance, can’t we design – or renovate – the very infrastructure of schoolhouses to be more secure and preventative?  Bullet proof glass and electronic shutdowns of facilities with a push of a button?  Corporate headquarters have done it, and our children deserve that same level of protection.

But let’s be clear.  You cannot separate kids from this nation’s penchant for guns.

Sandy Hook Elementary looms as a nerve-jarring reminder of gun violence but, in the longer look, we have to find a way to contextualize the victims on that December day.  Our colleagues at Children’s Defense Fund build a compelling case for the sad connection between children and bullets.  In the last two years for which we have data (2008 and 2009), 34,387 children and teens suffered nonfatal gun injuries.  That means that one kid is getting gunned every 31 minutes.  During those same years, 5,740 kids were killed by guns.  More kids died from guns during those two years than did military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan during that same timeframe.  And this is not simply a reflection of the sad growth in teen on teen violence.  The number of preschool children killed by guns during those two years was nearly double the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty during that time.  So in the midst of political posturing around guns, what can we as a people do?

That vignette from Judy’s classroom reminds us of one arena for action – personal responsibility.  In a 2005 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than two million children lived in a home with a loaded and unlocked gun.  The Centers estimate that number has exploded in the subsequent years.  A companion study from Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center asserts that 39 percent of children know where that home gun is stored and one in four kids – including preschoolers – regularly handle that gun.  Those numbers are part of a formula for disaster. Can’t we inspire our fellow citizens to protect their very own children?  If a parent is going to have a gun in the home, then that mom or dad needs to be intentional in making sure that the gun is locked.

As important as private citizen-based actions are, the contentious truth is that we also need other common-sense policy measures for the nation. Federal laws do not address gun-related consumer safety standards and child access prevention.  Seemingly every product from your vacuum cleaner to your coffee pot has consumer safety standards.  Congress can and should require childproof safety features on all guns. Two of my friends who are NRA members are both quick to separate what they deem as intrusions on the Second Amendment with ideas that can protect children.  Both of those NRAers, who also eloquently advocate for children, are quick to agree that military grade weaponry is not really necessary for them to bag a deer or a dove.  Along with the obvious and imperative need to regulate high caliber weaponry and magazines, I like the immediate pragmatism of two solutions that have gathered a broad consensus:

  • We need to close the gun-show loophole.

The Brady Bill requires licensed gun dealers to conduct a background check on every sale.  Yet, private gun dealers, who account for 40 percent of guns sold in this country, are exempt and can make that sale – especially at gun shows – with neither a sales license nor a background check.  We should require a criminal background check on anyone purchasing a gun.

  • We need to strengthen restrictions on people with a previous violent conviction.

An American Medical Association study reveals that a person previously charged with a violent misdemeanor was eight times more likely to be charged with a subsequent gun offense and/or violent crime.  That same study revealed that one in three people who had been convicted of a violent misdemeanor was arrested within three years of a gun purchase for a new violent crime.  Those statistics build a case for another common sense solution – Congress should prohibit gun possession by individuals who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors.  Period.

No one believes that the national conversation about guns and violence and kids will be simple or easy.  We cannot be overwhelmed by the complexity of what should be done.  We must act.  Those actions cannot exclude personal responsibility, but changes must include governmental policy reform.  As President Obama argued at the Newtown prayer vigil, “… caring for children – it’s our first job.”  Our first commitment must be to protect children and not guns.


Photo Credit: Children’s Defense Fund, 2013