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After spike in gun deaths, NC launches firearm storage campaign to reverse trend

A gun display case at Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
A gun display case at Central Texas Gun Works in Austin, Texas.

Gun related fatalities are now the number one cause of death for those under 18, surpassing car accidents. That’s according to data from 2020 – the most recent available from the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force. 105 North Carolina children died from guns in 2020, and there are about five times as many firearm-related hospitalizations and emergency visits.

“The overall homicide and suicide rate among kids under the age of 18 with guns has more than doubled over the last couple of years,” Bill Lassiter, North Carolina deputy secretary of juvenile justice, said, describing the years between 2011 and 2021.

There are many factors contributing to this rise in gun deaths among minors. More children are experiencing mental health challenges than before the pandemic, there are more first-time gun owners in our state, and handguns have become targeted items in car break-ins.

“We're seeing just kids are getting easier access to firearms from their own homes, from parents that aren’t locking up those firearms,” Lassiter said.

A third of North Carolina teens believe they could get a hold of a loaded firearm in an hour without their parent’s permission, according to a 2021 CDC survey. Other data showing increased access include juvenile court petitions. More than 5000 minors faced gun-related charges in 2022, the highest in five years. These charges are often tied in with other offenses.

“One of the top crimes that juveniles are being caught with right now is breaking into motor vehicles. Most of the time, that's when people have left their cars unsecured sitting in the driveway with guns in them. That’s how a lot of the firearms are making their way to the streets,” Dustin Pittman, a juvenile defense attorney in Goldsboro, said.

Pittman is also chair of the Wayne County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. He says minors who get caught stealing firearms are often doing so at the urging of an older friend or gang.

“Idle hands are the devil's playground. That's what we're talking about here. When the kids are not in school, they've got to have something to do. And so that's where you then go into the world of gangs,” Pittman said. “There are really two categories here. There are criminal gangs and then there are ‘gangs.’ Criminal gangs are what we're used to, what we've seen, the organized crime activity. The ‘gangs’ are the ones that are just kids trying to find a place to belong. And they're usually latching on to some slightly older kid, usually 20 to 25, that is organizing and planning and sending the kids out to commit the crime.”

Stolen guns can go for about $200 dollars a piece on the street. Why more kids are facing gun-related charges, especially in ENC, is due in part to false information from older peers.

“We're seeing that adults are trying to encourage young people to be the ones that commit those firearm charges,” Lassiter said. “They're telling these young people that they won't face serious repercussions, they won't face the same accountability because they'll be charged as juveniles. So, we're trying to make sure that young people understand that this is not accurate, that you'll still face legal consequences.”

The state launched the NC SAFE campaign in an effort to reverse these trends in gun deaths and gun-related charges. A study published in JAMAPediatrics finds that by locking all at-home firearms and therefore making it harder to access, the risk of unintentional deaths and suicides by firearms among youth can be significantly reduced.

NC SAFE stands for Secure All Firearms Effectively. The nonpartisan public education campaign officially launched in June. The initiative is blanketing local TV, radio and social media with messages on how to store firearms effectively. It’s no silver bullet, but those involved with the campaign are hopeful.

“We've bought 25,000 gun locks and 200 gun safes to have them distributed to the public so they can lock up those firearms, which has been shown to be the most effective means of reducing the possibility of those guns getting into the wrong hands,” Lassiter said.

But safely storing firearms means different things to different people. For some, it’s a gun safe. For others, it’s putting it on a high shelf. John Bennett owns a gun store in New Bern. He also has a concealed carry permit.

“I leave my gun loaded at all times. I don't carry with the safety on. I just prefer not to have a safety on my weapons,” Bennet, who has a 3-year old daughter and 7-year old son, said.

Bennett has a gun safe at home for one of his firearms. His concealed carry is placed on the top shelf once he gets home.

“What I do when I get home is I take the gun with the holster, I take it out, put it on top of the cabinet, and then my keys go down, my wallet goes down and then I go about my night.”

Bennett says that stowing the gun on the top shelf is enough for his family. He tells his children that “guns are not toys,” but when his son is curious, Bennett tries to take the curiosity out of the firearm by discussing it with his son and allowing him to handle it under supervision.

Pittman is a gun owner, too. He has a biometric lock box at his house and a gun lock for his handgun. He also has two kids at home.

“They're running around doing the Pew Pew thing,” he said.

So that’s two ends of the spectrum. NC Safe establishes a baseline with its checklist for gun owners: have a place to lock the gun up, store ammunition separately, unload the firearm when not in use, lock your car – even if it's in the driveway, and keep the combination or keys away from minors.

Syene Jasmin is a Greenville resident and member of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence. He says these are the baseline for safe storage.

“So we believe in responsible gun ownership. What that means is we want guns to be locked and unloaded. We want to keep it away from people that don't need to have guns in their hands: teenagers, kid, someone contemplating suicide. Those are the main three right now. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and we want to help prevent that,” Jasmin said.

North Carolinians Against Gun Violence advocates for a change in gun policy. Jasmin says the bipartisan education campaign is a step in the right direction, but he also urges for it to be a long-term campaign paired with investments in communities.

“There needs to be programming in place to not just educate folks, but also to do the preventative work so people won't commit violence towards each other and to learn how to to respectfully disagree, to learn how to deescalate situations, and that's where community violence intervention programs can certainly help,” Jasmin said.

The NC Child Fatality Task Force has pushed for a public education campaign for five consecutive years. After lawmakers declined to fund the initiative again last year, Governor Roy Cooper allocated funds to support NC SAFE from unspent state money. This year, lawmakers authorized a two-year safe firearm storage initiative, but did not include funds.

NC SAFE events are being held across the state for the rest of this year.

Courtesy NC SAFE

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.