More than 4 of every 10 parents of children under the age of 18 have a gun in their household, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Among those parents, one-third say their guns are stored in an unlocked location and one-third say they store their firearms loaded. Sixty-one percent say they store their guns in the same location as ammunition.
These findings have obvious ramifications for schools, as most students who commit violent attacks at schools get their firearms from their homes or from the homes of close relatives, according to a report by the U.S. Secret Service. That was the case in Newport News, Va., this January when a 6-year-old took a gun from home to school in his backpack and shot his 1st grade teacher, hospitalizing her. The child’s mother stored her gun, which had a trigger lock, on the top shelf of a closet.
The number of firearms in U.S. households increased during the pandemic, and the number of gun-related deaths of children and teens rose 50 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to an analysis of federal data by the Pew Research Center.
“Whenever I hear a statistic like that, that [parents] are not storing their weapons in a safe manner, that is very concerning to us as educators because we know that students have access to those weapons,” said Elizabeth Brown, a principal in Ocala, Fla.
But what role should schools play in educating families about safely storing guns? Is this a politically untouchable topic? And how should school leaders approach it if they decide to do so?
Schools are well positioned to be a conduit for information about safe gun storage to families, and a growing number of school districts are taking steps to inform parents of how to responsibly store firearms—unloaded, locked away, and with ammunition stored separately. In August, California became the first state to require that all public schools inform families about how to safely store guns.
Notifying parents about safe gun storage practices and laws is also a sensible preventative measure for schools, said Nicole Alzamora, a special education teacher in New Jersey who educates communities on safe storage practices through the Be SMART for Kids program.
“I know that many schools are trying to find solutions to reduce the possibility of a mass school shooting, and this is one way,” she said.
A common misunderstanding about gun safety
But it’s not just mass shootings that safe gun storage practices can help prevent, Alzamora said. They can help prevent suicides and accidental shooting deaths among children and teens, too, which make up nearly 40 percent of all gun-related deaths of people under 18 years of age.
Through all the outreach she has done, Alzamora said, the most common misunderstanding of gun safety she encounters is that owners feel they need to have their firearms at the ready—loaded and not locked away—in case someone breaks into their home. But, she said, it’s more likely a gun in the home will lead to accidental injury or be used in a suicide attempt than in self-defense.
The majority of gunshot deaths among children 12 and younger take place in the home, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
While school and district administrators may be hesitant to broach this topic with families because they perceive any conversation about guns as being at best divisive, Alzamora has found in her experience that safe gun storage is not a politically touchy topic—there’s broad support among liberals and conservatives for responsibly storing firearms.
But whether or not it’s political, it’s always a potentially sensitive topic anytime school officials tell parents what they should do in their homes, said Brown, the Florida principal.
“There is a very delicate line between the school and the parent and what we implement at the school level and also the freedom for parents to raise their children as they see fit,” she said.
Advice for school administrators
For administrators who are unsure about how parents might respond to safe gun storage education, Brown has this advice:
“What I normally do is I rely on the experts in that field,” she said. “When we begin to talk about this particular topic, we host parent nights that revolve around student mental health, social media trends, and we throw in weapons safety. I have a solid partnership with law enforcement, and I highly recommend that for administration at any school level. And we invite them to the table for these parent meetings so they can talk transparently about gun safety and what that should like in homes, what that should look like on a school campus, and how those two correlate.”
Parents also have legal responsibilities to make sure their firearms are safely stored. Well over half of states have laws aimed at stopping minors from getting guns, such as holding adults criminally liable if a child accesses their gun, and nearly a third have a safe storage or gun lock requirement, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In the Virginia shooting, the mother of the 6-year-old student was charged this month with child neglect and recklessly leaving a loaded firearm to endanger a child.