Youth suicide — the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 17 in North Carolina — is linked to access to firearms, according to working groups of the state’s Child Fatality Task Force (CFTF). About 47 percent of 15 to 17 year olds who committed suicide from 2012 to 2016 used guns to do so, according to data from the Department of Public Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Branch.
The task force met Wednesday to pass a variety of mental health and firearm safety recommendations for consideration during the state legislature’s upcoming short session.
Two separate work groups comprised of health, education, firearm, and suicide prevention experts — a Firearm Safety Stakeholder Group and a CALM (Counseling on Access to Lethal Means) group — studied ways to address the startling rates of suicide among teenagers.
Addressing suicide in young populations requires examination of access to firearms. About 36 percent of suicides by children zero to 14 used guns and about three-quarters of firearms used by children in a suicide were found in the child’s home or in the home of a relative or friend.
Karen McLeod, task force member and president and CEO of Benchmarks, a nonprofit advocating for better human services for children and families, assured members conversations around gun safety were balanced. She said, as an owner of multiple guns, she understands the feeling of getting defensive when conversations around access and restrictions come up.
“It’s not about whether you should or shouldn’t have firearms…” McLeod said. “It is about safety if you have firearms in the home with kids. And that’s just basic good common sense.”
Of the about 42 percent of North Carolina residents who own guns, about 37 percent keep them loaded. Out of North Carolina parents who own guns, about 63 percent keep them unsecured (outside a gun cabinet and without a trigger or cable lock), according to the Department of Public Health. In order to keep guns in more secure places, the task force is requesting $155,700 from the General Assembly, informed by the work of the Firearm Safety Stakeholder Group.
That money would be distributed over two years —$86,500 for the first year and $69,200 for the second— and used to create a firearm safety website with a toolkit that different communities can tailor for awareness and prevention strategies specific to their own environments. The funds would also pay for the distribution of discounted or free gun locks to gun owners. The funding would go to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for the hiring of an outside organization for implementation.
The task force also requested an initial $29,600 to expand the CALM program, which takes a different approach to the issue. CALM trains mental health and medical professionals, along with emergency medical personnel, law enforcement officials, educators, and firefighters on “means reduction.”
“Experts who spoke to the task force emphasized that means reduction, which is reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal means, is a critical strategy for suicide prevention,” said CFTF executive director Kella Hatcher.
According to experts from Dartmouth’s Injury Prevention Center and Harvard School of Public Health, means reduction is an evidence-based strategy to reduce suicide, Hatcher said. More specifically, the CALM funding would be used to create more CALM trainers and train more medical professionals, increase awareness on means reduction and access to online CALM training, and fund an outside entity to manage the expansion.
Outside of education and training for gun owners and medical professionals, the task force also suggested services and support for students themselves in preventing suicide and violence.
These school-specific suicide prevention recommendations are not entirely new; they made it into two separate House bills in the 2017 legislative session, along with the House’s final budget, but were not passed by the Senate or included in its budget. They were formed by a group assembled in 2016 by the CFTF Intentional Death Prevention committee that included nonprofit, private, and governmental organizations dealing with health, education, substance abuse, and the justice system. The recommendations, slightly changed this year, include:
- A mandatory online training that must be completed every two years for all public school employees who work directly with sixth to twelfth graders to increase an individual’s ability to identify students who are at-risk of being suicidal and refer those students to the appropriate resources
- $5 million in recurring funds to add 100 nurses to the public school system
- $100,000 in recurring funds for a social worker consultant under the Department of Public Instruction
- $125,000 per year for three years for a lead position by an individual or organization to implement the statewide suicide prevention plan created in 2015
Rep. Donna White, R-Johnston, expressed concern this organization would act like a think tank and not have any real power to make change.
But NC Child Executive Director Michelle Hughes said the funding would be to implement an already comprehensive plan rather than study the issue further.
These recommendations will inform lawmakers’ decisions in the upcoming short legislative session. If lawmakers decline to act in the session, the task force can focus their efforts on next year’s long session. McLeod said the larger financial asks will have a better chance of making it into legislation during the long session.
“It is very possible that information and sort of the structure of a platform of conversation takes place in short session and then it can come back in long session with more intention and hope that we can get some of these financial costs addressed and filled,” she said.
However, McLeod said, legislators’ attention this session could be centered on the task force’s recommendations because of the renewed statewide and national conversations around gun access and school safety following the February mass shooting of 17 students and faculty members at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“When these kinds of things occur in other states where there are shootings in schools, it really sets fear in hearts of folks of, ‘What is happening and could this happen in North Carolina?'” McLeod said. “… There is a raised level of awareness, so the potential of it being received a little more openly during short session increases.”