Police at the scene of a shooting at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, NC.
Sheriff's department: 1 student injured in school shooting
01:36 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Shannon Watts is the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the author of Fight Like a Mother: How a Grassroots Movement Took on the Gun Lobby and Why Women Will Change the World. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Bennie Hargrove should be at school right now, scribbling in his notebook, eating lunch with his friends and sharing updates about life as a middle-schooler with his brother and sisters. Instead, his family, friends, classmates and teachers are left to mourn the 13-year-old after he was shot and killed, police said, while trying to de-escalate a conflict between his classmates at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque last month.

Shannon Watts

The 13-year-old boy who shot Bennie six times brought his father’s loaded gun to school and showed it off to other children before pulling it out and using it to end Bennie’s life, according to a police statement.

The shooter’s father said he realized his gun was missing around noon that day. But by the time he drove to the school to check, his son was being led away in handcuffs. It wasn’t the first time a member of the family had brought a gun to campus: in 2018, the shooter’s father was banned from Highland High School also in Albuquerque after shooting and injuring another parent in the student pick-up lane, according to a report in the Albuquerque Journal, which noted that the District Attorney declined to charge him after determining he had a “valid defense claim.” “Given the father’s history, our detectives are looking at every factor that may have contributed to Friday’s tragic shooting,” Police Chief Harold Medina told the Journal. “It is not acceptable that a child had access to a gun and took it to school.”

The senseless killing of Bennie – and the earlier incident in the shooter’s family – are only-in-America tragedies. While students and educators around the world are dealing with the uncertainty of going back to the classroom amid a Covid-19 surge, most are packing masks, spacing out desks and stocking up on hand sanitizer to prepare. Only in the United States are children and teachers also being asked – in the now regularized shooter drills that are part of the school year – to crouch under desks, hide in closets and practice what they would do if a shooter opened fire on campus.

It is absurd to ask the nation’s children to kneel because our lawmakers won’t stand up to gun lobbyists. But the fact is that the return to school could mean a return to gun violence if we as adults do not act. Gun sales surged 64% during the pandemic, and new research from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence, estimates that 5.4 million children now live in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked gun, up from 4.6 million children six years ago. The school year hasn’t even begun in many states, but we’ve already witnessed at least 15 instances of children and teens bringing guns to school in at least 12 different states. Educators are bracing themselves.

The reality is that after more than a year and a half of living through the stress, isolation and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, many of our kids are not all right. Cut off from resources like in-person guidance counselors, psychologists and school support staff, many children and teens are struggling like never before. Some are living in families still dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic. Others are trying to find connection and combat bullying after a year of online learning. Whatever the challenges students are facing, adding easy access to guns to the mix is a guaranteed recipe for tragedy. Everytown’s research shows 74% of school shooters under the age of 18 obtained the gun they used from their home or a friend’s home.

And it isn’t just school shootings we should be worried about. Unintentional shootings by children – entirely preventable tragedies – rose 30% during the pandemic and now occur about once per day in our country, and the victims are overwhelmingly other children, according to data from RAND Corporation. Even before the pandemic, we saw the firearm suicide rate among children and teens rise a staggering 59% over the past decade. The common denominator in these tragedies is easy access to guns, and we must address that root cause if we want to protect our kids.

It has never been more urgent to act, because while firearms were already the leading cause of death for children and teens before the pandemic, the crisis has only gotten worse. Gun violence against children 12 and under increased 50% from 2019 to 2020, and hospital visits by children who were injured by guns rose by nearly 40% last year, according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. These alarming trends have continued into 2021.

But our children don’t have to live – and die – like this. It isn’t about teaching children and teens to stand up to a bully who turns out to have a gun, the way that police said Bennie did, or traumatizing them with extreme active shooter drills that simulate a shooting. It’s not the responsibility of children to know not to touch loaded, unsecured guns when they find them at their home or a friend’s home.

Instead, it’s on us – all of us – as adults to make sure guns are stored unloaded, locked and separate from ammunition. It’s on all of us to ask our fellow parents, neighbors and family members how guns are stored in their homes. And it’s on all of us to demand that secure storage policies become a required part of the responsibility of gun ownership.

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    At Moms Demand Action, an organization I founded, volunteers in every state are doing their part, pushing school board members and state legislators to pass resolutions that ensure secure storage materials are sent home with every student. Thanks to their hard work, more than 1.5 million students now attend schools where this life-saving information is just part of the back-to-school routine, alongside school lunch forms and picture day packages.

    But more work must be done to keep our children safe. Only by taking on the gun lobby at the community, state and federal level can we ensure gun violence doesn’t make it to our schools in the first place. Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to gun violence. As adults, we can and must do better. Our children’s lives depend on it.