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Linda Cavazos knows how it feels to lose a loved one to gun violence. So beginning in January, she pushed to get the Clark County school district, whose board she chairs, to include a notice in the packet of materials each parent receives during registration about how to safely store firearms.
That notice—a simple reminder of Nevada’s law, a rundown of statistics on child gun injuries, and a link that directs them to information about gun-storage options—was ultimately approved this past June and now reaches the families of the district’s more than 300,000 students.
It’s one part of the district’s strategy to respond to increased incidences of firearms on campuses, concerns about lack of adult supervision during the pandemic, and some tragic incidents involving children younger than 14—and, Cavazos says, a way of honoring her brother, who killed himself.
“It’s a safety measure, and if it saves even one child’s life, it’s completely worth it,” said Cavazos, who is a family therapist in her day job. “The grief and the regret and the ripple effect that goes on for the rest of [a parent’s] life; this is not something that ever, ever goes away.”
Now, other school districts are following suit, in response both to grassroots organizing and to a recent spate of violence in schools.
On Dec. 6, the Atlanta district passed a resolution committing it to work with health agencies and nonprofits on safe gun storage. The resolution explicitly referenced the school shooting in Oxford, Mich., last week that ended in the deaths of four students.
“Since we can’t change [gun laws] at the local level, the best thing we can do is encourage people to store their guns safely " said Jason Esteves, the district’s school board chairman, who shepherded the vote this week. “If school districts and cities and counties did their part across the country, then we’d be able to fill in the gap where the state or the federal government has failed.”
And as schools review the complex web of factors that can prevent fatal violence like the shooting in Michigan, such notices may be among the simplest and most immediate steps they can take.
Here’s what district leaders should know about safe gun storage—and what they should expect if they take up the issue on their own.
What to know about safe storage laws
Around 30 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that, collectively, are known as child-access-prevention laws. The details of these laws vary significantly, but their basic thrust is to prevent minors from being able to access loaded firearms.
It’s an approach that makes sense in the context of what’s known about school shooters. In a 2019 analysis, the U.S. Secret Service found that firearms were used in more than 60 percent of targeted school attacks by current and former students over a decadelong period. And in a 2021 report, the agency found in a study of thwarted attacks on schools that nearly two-thirds of would-be student perpetrators had access to firearms—by far the most common weapon used.
Researchers also estimate that fewer than half of gun owners safely store all their guns, generally defined as storing them locked, unloaded, and separately from ammunition, and that more than 4.6 million children live in households where loaded guns are not kept under lock and key.
The strictest CAP laws, as those in California and Massachusetts, make individuals civilly or criminally liable for negligently storing firearms under circumstances in which minors could gain access to them. Less strict ones, like Georgia’s and Mississippi’s, have a lower standard, making adults liable only if they intentionally or “recklessly” permit a minor to have access to guns.
Dear CCSD Parent or Guardian,
In order to continue with preventative measures to increase student and school safety, the Clark County School District Board of School Trustees passed a resolution regarding the secure storage of firearms.
CCSD would like to remind all parents about the importance of safe gun storage in their homes as well as any homes their children may visit.
Every year, nearly 350 children under the age of 18 unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else. An estimated 4.6 million American children live in households with at least one firearm. Research shows secure firearm storage practices are associated with an 85 percent reduction in the risk of self-inflicted and unintentional firearm injuries among children and teens.
Nevada state law requires adults to securely store their firearms in cases where a child is likely to gain access to the firearm.
CCSD will continue to work with local law enforcement agencies, health agencies and nonprofits to collaborate and increase efforts to inform District parents of their obligations regarding secure storage of firearms in their homes.
Keeping students, teachers, and staff from the threat of gun violence should be the responsibility of all stakeholders within our school communities. For more information on secure firearm storage, please visit: https://www.safefirearmsstorage.org/start-a-conversation/
The laws don’t reference school officials’ responsibilities or liability. But as advocates point out, safe-storage requirements tend to lie buried in state code and out of the public’s eye. School districts—along with community organizations and social-service providers—can play a key role in getting the word out.
That’s where the notifications come in.
The Los Angeles district, in 2019, adopted a policy requiring all parents to sign a notice about safe gun storage and return it annually. Clark County includes its document in a packet with other notifications about allergies and vaccination records, all of which have a single required signature at the end.
Some districts’ notifications carry an important symbolic force: The Houston district’s is signed by the chief of its internal police force. (Houston is one of a handful of districts that has its own police force rather than an arrangement with municipal law enforcement.)
Michigan is among the states that does not currently have CAP laws on the books. A package of bills introduced this legislative session hasn’t advanced yet and its co-sponsor, Democrat Sen. Rosemary Bayer, said during a recent press conference that she had not yet secured a promise to hold hearings on them.
But the general subtext of parental responsibility is nevertheless at the forefront of the debate in Michigan. The father of the student charged in the Oxford shooting purchased the semiautomatic pistol purportedly used in the attack just three days earlier. And Karen McDonald, the Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor, has charged the alleged shooter’s parents with involuntary manslaughter—a rare move and, potentially, a difficult charge to prove.
Taking the focus off politics
The gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit, counts about 40 districts that now issue such notifications. Many are in California, home to some of the nation’s strictest laws about safe firearm storage, but others are in states with more permissive rules, among them Arizona and Vermont.
Among the challenges for school leaders: the fear of coming off as “political.” It’s a reasonable concern, with districts landing in hot water for making statements about policing, abortion, and other hot-button topics considered outside their purview by some critics.
But a conversation about safe gun handling and storage doesn’t have to be intrinsically focused on gun control or Second Amendment rights, advocates say. It can simply focus on safety.
Clark County’s first attempt at a policy failed by one vote, in part over political concerns and a sense that the district was taking a nanny-state role. But that lessened as the district reframed its efforts around public safety—including by getting educators, some of whom were themselves gun owners, on board.
“Some of the response [from parents] initially was: ‘This is part of parenting; we should be doing that,’ not the school board, Cavazos recalled. “Or, ‘This is the first step to wanting to know how many guns we have in our house.’ We had to work hard, and I would say the biggest factor in the success of the measure the second time was that the community really invested in our efforts.”
In Atlanta, Esteves says his response to cries of playing politics will also emphasize the district’s role in safety.
“We know that what happens outside the classroom impacts students as much as what happens inside the classroom, and if our students are not in safe environments, it makes it hard to educate them,” he said. “And it impacts student achievement, which makes it my responsibility to do something to address it.”
Can a piece of paper really prevent gun violence?
Studying gun violence poses some big challenges for researchers. There is no national gun registry, which means studies have had to rely on things like surveys and estimates based on imperfect proxies for gun ownership.
School district notices haven’t been studied yet, but, their proponents argue, the point isn’t to solve the issue of gun access by minors outright but rather a necessary first step to ensure that parents and the public hear the message consistently.
“I try to speak to folks and say, ‘Remember when we first started out with seat belt laws and [Mothers Against Drunk Driving]?’ When we first began any of these safety laws designed to protect people’s health and lives, it wasn’t a one and done,” Cavazos said. “It was a process.”
And perhaps the most compelling reason to try it is that it’s a low-lift strategy for districts, most of which are also engaging in the longer-term work of reviewing their lockdown protocols, weighing the complicated research about school resource officers, and mulling over whether their threat-assessment plans are up to snuff.
Some school safety experts say that a preventative approach is worth trying because legislative responses to school shootings focused on gun control so frequently fall short.
“You usually hear calls for background checks following these shootings despite the fact that the teen accessed firearms kept in the home by a parent or other family member,” said Daniel Webster, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University and the director of its Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “These shootings are preventable if parents simply locked up their guns.
“With the increased frequency of school shootings and the huge costs associated with efforts to keep schools safe from such shootings, it is only logical that schools do everything they can to encourage parents who own guns to keep them locked up.”
It’s trickier—but not impossible—for districts in states without safe-storage laws
Despite its deep-blue reputation as a liberal paradise, Vermont has a robust hunting culture. Like Michigan, the state does not have a CAP law on the books.
That didn’t stop Maddie Ahmadi, a junior in the state’s Essex Wexford district, from pushing leaders to send out guidance on safe storage. She’d begun a chapter of Students Demand Action, a youth gun-violence group linked to Everytown, in her school in 2019. The group has since successfully urged the superintendent to send out safe gun-storage letters.
The activism has spread: The school board of a neighboring district, Champlain Valley, agreed to disseminate a safe-storage letter after student pressure.
For all that Vermonters support the right to own guns, Ahmadi said that many have been open-minded about safe storage.
“When individuals are given facts and information about why secure storage works and how it is preventing these tragedies, they begin to understand this is a safety issue. I’m not telling anyone to stop hunting and I’m not telling anyone to give away their gun; I’m telling them to securely store them so we can prevent tragedies like what happened in Oxford,” she said.
And though school board members might take some heat for approving the notices, Ahmadi said, there’s a good reason for staying the course.
“Honestly, the pushback is just so much less than what a community goes through when a school shooting happens,” she said.