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North Carolina officials respond after U.S. Surgeon General declared gun violence a public health crisis

U.S. Attorney Michael Easley says Robert Strother shot a neighbor and when he was caught he had a loaded semi-automatic weapon with the safety set to fire.
Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina
File: U.S. Attorney Michael Easley says Robert Strother shot a neighbor and when he was caught he had a loaded semi-automatic weapon with the safety set to fire.

The U.S. Surgeon General this week declared gun violence a public health crisis.

North Carolina is already taking a public health approach to reduce gun violence, and while an eastern North Carolina sheriff agrees that too many people have experienced it, he said it’s not a problem that can be legislated away.

In a report that accompanied the announcement, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said gun violence is the leading cause of death among children and adolescents; more than half of adults reported that they or their family members have experienced gun violence; and nearly six of ten adults say they worry about their loved ones being victims of gun violence.

Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes said steps can be taken to reduce those numbers, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of constitutional rights.

"I'm very much a proponent of the Second Amendment and I do believe that law abiding citizens certain have the capability to protect themselves and protect their property from those that want to come, bring harm to them,” he said.

Hughes says Craven County is full of responsible gun owners, and instead of trying to pass more gun control laws, the federal government and U.S. lawmakers should focus instead on holding the criminals that use them responsible.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Office of Violence Prevention supports a public health approach to the reduction of violence and firearm misuse in North Carolina.

The office was established last year, and I recently spoke with Deputy Director Siarra Scott. She said the public health approach digs deeper into the causes of violence with a goal of prevention.

"Once you understand the risk factors, you can then start to take a look at the protective factors,” she explained, “So, what protective factors exist to mitigate or reduce those risks, but then which ones are missing because that's going to help you really understand where you probably want to focus your effort at getting some of those protective factors in place for this community.”

One way gun owners can help reduce the number of gun crimes, Hughes says, is to make sure guns aren’t left in unlocked vehicles.

“Make sure your vehicle is locked,” he said. “And I hate that we have to do that when it's in our driveway of our home. But criminals will come onto your property and steal things that don't belong to them and that's part of what makes them a criminal. They do stuff like that.”

Both Hughes and Scott agree that safe gun storage is a key measure in harm reduction.

Scott said, "Safe gun Storage is a big thing, and that is one evidence-based strategy that is effective because you definitely want to focus on preventing access to firearms. So, that's one way to do it is making sure in the household that firearms are being stored safely so youth are not able to get access to them.”

And the sheriff said there are devices available that can keep a gun out of the hands of children.

"We have lock devices here at the sheriff's office, and anybody comes up here and asks for one a lot of times I have them in our lobby,” Hughes said, “They can take one with them and it's basically got a kind of like a padlock with the key and it's got a metal wire that runs through parts of the weapon that renders it safe where you cannot load it. And you know, it is a safe weapon at that time.”

Scott said that another component of the public health approach is reducing exposure to adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs -- potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. They can include experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, exposure to substance use or mental health problems, and other traumas.

"This is not necessarily going to reverse what's already been happening but it's going to prevent it from continuing to happen and so when children are exposed to aces it can change the trajectory of their lives honestly it can it changes their brain chemistry and it affects the way they make decisions and it (is) even linked to different like chronic health outcomes and so by focusing on preventing this we can thought generational cycles of trauma and cycles of violence,” she said.

More than anything, Hughes said teaching children about firearm safety is important, "And taking the time to go over gun safety with them and the importance of knowing that you treat every gun as if it's loaded. Unfortunately, in a lot of these instances where a youth’s life has been taken from an accidental discharge, a lot of that was not instilled into the child.”

Dr. Murthy’s 32-page advisory calls for an increase in funding for firearm violence prevention research; advises health workers to discuss firearm storage with patients during routine medical visits; and recommends safe storage laws, universal background checks, “red flag” laws and an assault weapons ban, among other measures.

Annette is originally a Midwest gal, born and raised in Michigan, but with career stops in many surrounding states, the Pacific Northwest, and various parts of the southeast. An award-winning journalist and mother of four, Annette moved to eastern North Carolina in 2019 to be closer to family – in particular, her two young grandchildren. It’s possible that a -27 day with a -68 windchill in Minnesota may have also played a role in that decision. In her spare time, Annette does a lot of kiddo cuddling, reading, and producing the coolest Halloween costumes anyone has ever seen. She has also worked as a diversity and inclusion facilitator serving school districts and large corporations. It’s the people that make this beautiful area special, and she wants to share those stories that touch the hearts of others. If you have a story idea to share, please reach out by email to westona@cravencc.edu.