Children and Gun Violence

A Policy Statement Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches, October 28, 1998

Several times in the past decade, we have spoken out about the proliferation of guns and gun violence. In 1994, we noted why this is of concern to people of faith.

Gun violence, especially handgun violence, has increasingly become a cause for alarm in our nation and state. As Christians, we especially are disturbed. The way of Christ is a way of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love for enemies. The spirit of Christ is sharply opposed to the spirit of violence and the instruments of violence. It is also opposed to the law of retaliation or responding to injury with injury. Christ rejected the use of violence in the pursuit of his mission, and when one of the disciples drew his sword in defense of Jesus, the Lord said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:51-53).

We now turn to a special part of the issue of guns: the impact of gun violence on children.

Scope of the Problem

The tragedies grip the headlines. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, two boys, aged 11 and 13, take semi-automatic weapons from the home of a family member, hide in the woods near their school, set off a false fire alarm, and open fire on their classmates exiting the school building. Five people, including a teacher, are killed and ten injured.

In Springfield, Oregon, a troubled 15-year-old, armed with a semi-automatic purchased for him by his father, opens fire in a school cafeteria, killing four and injuring twenty-two. The night before, he had apparently shot and killed his parents.

In West Paducah, Kentucky, a 14-year old uses a stolen gun to open fire on a school prayer group. Three girls are killed.

North Carolina has not been immune from the tragic mixture of guns and children. In Greensboro, a four-year-old accidentally shoots and kills his six-year-old friend with a loaded handgun he has just found in his grandmother’s purse. In Chapel Hill, a distressed teenage girl takes a handgun from her home and commits suicide in a rest room at her middle school. In Durham, a five-year-old shows up at kindergarten with a loaded handgun. In Asheville, a school bus monitor overhears two thirteen-year-olds discussing a stolen gun and planning a robbery, which they carry out days later in a street corner shooting of a lone woman.

The statistics bear out what the stories suggest:

  • Every day in the United States, 14 children and youth aged 19 and under are killed by guns in homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings. Put another way, every two hours, a young person is killed with a gun. (Children’s Defense Fund, 1998.)
  • Seventy percent of teen homicides and 64% of teen suicides involve firearms. (American Academy of Pediatrics, cited by Children’s Defense Fund, 1998.)
  • The United States leads the developed world in firearm-related deaths among children younger than 15. The rate is about three times higher than the next highest country (Finland). Combining the rates for the other 25 industrialized countries (in effect, averaging the higher countries with the lower) shows that a child in the United States is about 12 times more likely to die by firearm than is a child in the remainder of the industrialized world. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1997.)
  • Arrests for weapons violations by North Carolina juveniles under 18 has more than tripled from 1987 to 1996, going from 417 to 1,491. (Crime in NC–1996.)
  • A recent North Carolina study of 419 homicides committed by juveniles aged 11-18 from 1990 through 1995 found that firearms, mainly handguns, were used in 83% of the murders. (Tamera Coyne-Beasley, MD, Master’s Thesis, UNC School of Public Health, 1997.)
  • In North Carolina in 1996, there were a total of 65 gun deaths among juveniles 17 and under. Thirty-five percent were homicides, 48% suicides, and 17% unintentional accidents. (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Report to the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force, 1997.) Statistics are not kept on juveniles who are injured by guns or adults who are shot and killed by juveniles.
  • Of those juvenile deaths by gun in 1996, 88% of the guns had not been stored safely. Of the 11 unintentional gun deaths, all were caused by unsafely stored guns. Of the 31 suicides, nearly 75% of the juveniles killed themselves with adult-owned guns, over half of which were stored unsafely. (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 1997.)

Concern about the impact of guns on children is not coming just from the faith community and gun-control groups. The medical community is also bringing its considerable influence to bear. The American College of Physicians calls gun violence a “public health threat of epidemic proportions.” The American Academy of Pediatrics counsels “all adolescent health care providers to promote the responsibility of every family to create a gun-safe home environment.” The American Academy of Family Physicians, the National Medical Association, and the American Medical Association all are calling the medical community to greater awareness of its role in preventing firearm injury and death.

The Sources of Guns
Broadly speaking, the guns that children use to kill and maim themselves and others can be divided into two categories: guns they have access to in homes and guns they buy or steal outside the home.

In the home
North Carolina law prohibits gun owners from storing or leaving their guns “in a condition that the firearm can be discharged” by an unsupervised minor who lives with the gun owner. The owner would be guilty of a misdemeanor if the minor used the firearm in a threatening manner, to commit a crime, or to cause an injury or death. (NCGS §§14-315.1 and -315.2.) The law requires retail and wholesale firearms dealers to provide a written copy of the storage law to purchasers and to post a warning in their stores.

According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, however, almost no one is charged with improperly storing a firearm. Often the deaths and injuries are within the family of the gun owner, and it appears unseemly to add to the owner’s grief by arresting him/her. (Society’s special attitude towards guns is in evidence here. If a drunken driver caused an accident in which his children were killed, we would not be so reluctant to charge him with crimes.) Many law enforcement officers are not even aware of the law regarding improperly stored firearms.

Outside the home
Federal law prevents anyone under the age of 21 from buying a handgun and anyone under the age of 18 from buying a long gun. North Carolina law prohibits selling or giving a handgun to a minor (with certain exceptions). However, there is a serious problem of older juveniles obtaining firearms from sources outside their homes. At least 41% of the guns used in North Carolina’s 1996 juvenile deaths were illegally owned by juveniles or gangs. (Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 1997.)

Rather than buying directly from legitimate dealers (the primary market), the major way youths obtain guns outside their homes is, like felons, from acquaintances or illegal suppliers (the secondary market). These sources include theft, scofflaw retailers who sell under the counter, straw-man purchasers who buy on behalf of those too young to buy for themselves, and gun traffickers who buy guns in large quantities from loosely regulated jurisdictions and resell elsewhere. (Philip Cook and Thomas Cole, editorial in Journal of the American Medical Association, June 12, 1996.)

Legislative Recommendations

Our state and our nation need to take action to end this epidemic. Merely educating children about gun safety is not enough. We must enact laws which make it more difficult for children to gain access to guns and that provide stronger punishments as a deterrent to those who willfully or accidentally allow guns to fall into the hands of children.

To these ends, we call on the General Assembly to consider the following legislative options:

1. To reduce juvenile access to guns in the home:

  • North Carolina should enforce and strengthen current laws regarding adults’ responsibilities for guns. The law should specify that guns should be locked up (with trigger locks) or locked away (in storage cases), unloaded, whenever they are not in use. The law should also apply anytime a juvenile gets access to a gun not properly stored by an adult, not just when the juvenile and the gun owner are living together. Violations that result in injury or death should be felonies. Adults must be held responsible for their guns, and the penalties should serve as a deterrent to irresponsible adult behavior.
  • North Carolina currently requires the successful completion of a handgun safety training course by all concealed handgun permittees. This should be extended to all permits for handgun purchases. An important part of this training would be how to prevent juvenile access to the gun.

2. To reduce juvenile access to guns outside the home:

  • North Carolina law enforcement officials should have adequate resources to put scofflaw gun dealers out of business by monitoring their behavior more closely and enforcing already existing laws. Emphasis should be placed on the small number of dealers who sell to gunrunners.
  • North Carolina should reduce gun theft by requiring dealers, businesses, and individuals to store guns safely. At least a half a million guns are stolen annually from homes, businesses, and vehicles. Many of these guns are used in crimes involving juveniles, either as victims or perpetrators. Those who allow their guns to be stolen through unsafe storage should be penalized.
  • North Carolina should crack down on interstate gunrunning traffic by passing a one-gun-a-month law, which limits handgun purchasers to one gun per person per month. A gunrunning market on Interstate 95 allows people to acquire new handguns from states with no limits on sales and then sell to illegal underaged purchasers. When Virginia adopted a one-gun-a-month law in 1993, the state’s share of guns used in crimes and traced back to Virginia fell 54%. (Handgun Control and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence Progress Report, 1997.) South Carolina and Maryland also have one-gun-a-month laws. It is difficult to understand how a legitimate gun owner would be handicapped by such a restriction.
  • North Carolina law enforcement officials should increase the regulation of secondary gun sales. Currently the state is nearly devoid of regulation of secondary gun sales. The law requires every recipient of a handgun to obtain a permit, but sheriffs do not appear to enforce this law for private purchases. Gun shows, one of the most organized segments of the secondary market, are a hybrid of primary and secondary sales. They are not, however, regulated or monitored.

3. In order adequately to enforce laws regulating juvenile access to guns, the following laws also need to be enacted. While these are controversial recommendations, we believe that they are worthwhile and critical to keeping guns out of the hands of our children and youth.

  • North Carolina should require that law enforcement trace all guns found in the possession of juveniles or used by juveniles in committing crimes. This will help to locate dealers and others who inadvertently or intentionally allow guns to fall into the hands of juveniles.
  • North Carolina should require that all guns be registered so that law enforcement officials can trace stolen guns and guns used in crimes. Many laws prohibiting juvenile access to guns, especially those aimed at gun thefts and illegal sales, will be very difficult to enforce without registration.

4. In order to educate children regarding the effects of gunshot wounds and to counteract the sanitized view of violence in the visual media, state-mandated health education should include age-appropriate visual examples of the effects of gun violence. In addition, instruction should be given on how to tell the difference between toy and real weapons.

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