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Task force on child fatality requests legislative funds for gun safety effort: ‘Adults need to lock up those firearms’

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After the Raleigh mass shooting last month that took five lives, “the topic of gun violence is unfortunately foremost in the minds of many of us,” said Kella Hatcher, executive director of the state’s Child Fatality Task Force, at a meeting of the group on Monday.

The task force passed a recommendation at the meeting on firearm safety initiatives aimed at decreasing minors’ access to guns. Hatcher and William Lassiter, deputy secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, presented data indicating why the initiatives are needed:

There were 116 children under age 17 who died from firearm-related injuries in 2021. From 2012 to 2021, more than 600 children have died from firearm-related injuries. More than half of children who died by suicide in 2020 and 2021 used firearms to do so. Juvenile crime related to firearm possession has gone from 4% of all juvenile crime reports in 2017 to 13% in 2021.

“Although it’s going to take multiple prevention strategies to really make a difference here, one thing we know will make a difference and that many can agree on, and that this task force has agreed on repeatedly, is getting gun owners to safely store their guns,” Hatcher said.

She cited a 2019 study by JAMA Pediatrics that found “6% to 32% of youth firearm deaths (by suicide and unintentional firearm injury) could be prevented, depending on the probability that an intervention motivates adults who currently do not lock all household firearms to instead lock all guns in their home.”

More than 40% of adults in North Carolina have a firearm in or around the home, and more than half of loaded guns are also unlocked, Hatcher said. She added that most school shootings are perpetrated with firearms found at home.

“That’s a lot of firearms that are accessible to curious young children, youth who are at risk of harming themselves, or others,” she said.

The recommendation, which the group has supported since 2018, would fund state-level positions that provide technical assistance to communities to launch local initiatives aimed at safe storage. The group is requesting $250,000 over two years from the legislature this session to go to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Injury and Violence Prevention Branch.

The Child Fatality Task Force, created by state statute in 1991, studies child death and makes recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly “on how to prevent child death, prevent abuse and neglect, and support the safety and well-being of children,” according to its website.

Children are most often accessing guns at home, as well as in vehicles, Lassiter said. Gun purchases spiked during the pandemic, and firearm theft is now the No. 1 reason juveniles are breaking into cars, he said.

“Adults need to lock up those firearms, especially when they’re just leaving it on the front seat,” Lassiter said.

His division has also launched a “request for proposal” to create a public awareness campaign to educate adults and children on gun safety and safe storage. That work is supported with temporary funds and would be continued with the requested funding.

“This is not an anti-gun campaign,” Lassiter said, later adding that, “We’re gonna talk about how, if you have a gun in your house, how do you responsibly store that gun in your home.”

The recommendation made it into House Bill 427 during the 2021 legislative session, which passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate. The task force approved the recommendation unanimously.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.