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Perspective | Guns, schools, and children in jeopardy

Monday dawned serenely, abounding in tranquil scenes of North Carolina in springtime: azaleas in bloom on front lawns, a gorgeous grove of white dogwoods with petals seeming to float in the morning shadows, and a neighborhood coffeehouse filled with millennials with open laptops on nearly every table.

Before noon, however, all-too-familiar news of gunfire and deaths had intruded into the feeling of tranquility.

In Raleigh, police exchanged shots and killed a man who had pointed a firearm at vehicles near Ligon Magnet Middle School. As the school went on lockdown, teachers were among the dozen people who called the 911 emergency line. 

In Nashville, Tennessee, three 9-year-olds and three adults died at a small parochial school attacked by a 28-year-old shooter who reportedly had received treatment for an “emotional disorder.” The shooter came armed with three of the seven weapons purchased legally at five gun shops. 

By Wednesday in the North Carolina General Assembly, both the House and Senate had voted to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a Republican-sponsored measure to eliminate the system of a background check and a sheriff’s permit for purchasing a handgun. The bill also allows people to carry concealed weapons into a place of worship with an attached school.

Then at mid-morning Thursday came a report of a shot fired on the main campus of Forsyth County Technical College in Winston-Salem, with the shooter injuring himself. As police investigated, Forsyth Tech closed the campus and canceled classes for the remainder of the week.

By coincidental timing, the intense national media coverage of the Nashville school shooting draped a layer of politically-charged context over the North Carolina legislature’s action. Recent national and state guns-and-children trends cast real doubt on the prudence of relaxing restrictions on firearms.

The Washington Post has compiled a database of 376 school shootings since the tragedy at Columbine High in Colorado in April 1999. “While it remains highly unlikely that any student will experience a school shooting, the number of incidents has risen rapidly in recent years,” the Post reports.

Shootings declined in 2020, when the COVID outbreak shut down in-person classes. But, according to the Post, there were shootings at 42 K-12 schools in 2021 and 46 in 2022, “mirroring the nation’s broader rise in gun violence as it emerged from the pandemic.”

The full guns-and-children story doesn’t begin and end at the schoolhouse door. The American firearms culture imposes uncertainty and fragility on the life circumstances of many young people — and thus has a bearing on their education.

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a health issues nonprofit research organization, reports that firearms had taken the lives of more than 4,300 children in 2020, becoming “the number one cause of deaths for children ages 1-19 in the United States.”  

“The U.S. is the only country among its peers in which guns are the leading cause of death among children.” KFF reports. “Firearms account for 20% of all child deaths in the U.S., compared to an average of less than 2% of child deaths in similarly large and wealthy nations.”

In its 2023 annual report, the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force provides “disturbing data about a significant increase in firearm deaths and injuries to children and a crisis in youth mental health with increased rates of suicide and self-harm.” Firearm death rates for children in North Carolina rose by 230% from 2012 to 2021, reports the task force.

The task force calls for providing schools with more nurses, social workers, counselors, and psychologists. The task force also recommends a statewide initiative to promote the safe storage of firearms — and the measure that goes into law as a result of the veto override contains a provision for a two-year  initiative “to educate the public about the importance of the safe storage of firearms and to facilitate the distribution of gun locks.”

In an essay published earlier this month, the RAND Corporation, a global think-tank, drew on a U.S. Secret Service finding that in two-fifths of school plots studied, people with prior knowledge did not report the threats. RAND recommends tip lines and training events to foster a school culture of less alienation and of a stronger sense of belonging.

RAND makes the obvious though key observation that “all forms of school violence—from playground bullying to school shootings—have an adverse effect on educational environments.”  

The Nashville school shooting is not the only lens through which to look at the North Carolina legislature’s veto override that loosens firearms restrictions. A wider lens would clarify how incidents near Ligon Magnet and at Forsyth Tech disrupt schooling and unsettle the lives of students, faculty and school staff. A wider lens would focus on the unnerving reality that guns have become the leading cause of death of America’s children.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.