Advocates say a simple solution to gun violence exists
Robin Cogan, a public school nurse and a clinical coordinator at Rutgers University’s school nurse program, talks to people on all sides of the gun debate.
Cogan’s message to firearm owners is simple: Store and lock your unloaded guns away from children and others who can easily access them.
“We need to talk about this openly, how we store our guns,” she said. “Parents of small children should not be afraid to ask friends if there is a gun in the house and is it securely stored when their child visits.”
With last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the door to laxer rules for carrying firearms and a recent federal judge’s decision that stopped New Jersey from enforcing much of a new state law that would have sharply limited where gun owners can bring their weapons, the Garden State is preparing for a potential increase in the number of gun owners and guns in public places.
Cogan, who writes and blogs about gun safety, realizes that when she’s talking to crowds, not everyone wants to hear her message.
“At public events, there are people who are on very different sides of this issue,” she said. “I think we can come to a place of shared value around keeping our kids safe, especially when we know the leading cause of death for children and teenagers, ages 1 to 19, is firearms.”
She added: “America’s gun homicide rate is more than 26 times the average of other high-income countries. We have to act now.”
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions reported that firearms took the lives of 4,357 young people in 2020.
Shani Nuckols is co-leader of Moms Demand Action’s New Jersey chapter. The anti-gun violence group launched a program in 2015 that it calls Be SMART (Secure, Model, Ask, Recognize, and Tell) that educates parents and other adults about gun safety.
“Some of our members own guns,” Nuckols said. “We talk to adults about gun safety and teach parents to talk to their children about it, too.”
A simple solution
For Cogan, gun violence hit close to home twice.
In 1949, her father, Charles Cohen, survived the Howard Unruh shooting in Camden. Cohen, who was 12 then, hid in a closet while the gunman murdered his parents and grandmother.
Unruh killed 13 people total using a 9mm handgun he purchased in a store. It is considered the nation’s first mass shooting, Cogan noted.
Fast forward to 2018 when Cogan’s niece, Carly Novell, survived the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, by hiding in a closet with her classmates while a shooter killed 17 students and injured 17 others.
“Gun violence is a public health crisis,” Cogan said. “And despite our differences, I believe we all want to keep our kids safe.”
Cogan compared giving out gun storage locks to handing out free condoms.
“There was a lot of opposition to handing out free condoms,” Cogan said. “It keeps our kids safe. Handing out free gun safety locks will also keep our kids safe.”
Addressing adults versus children
The National Rifle Association has its own program intended to teach children about gun safety.
Cartoon character Eddie Eagle tells children if they spot a gun, “Don’t touch, run, walk away, and tell an adult.”
Nuckols, of Moms Demand Action, said that’s not a message that works on its own.
“Kids are impulsive,” she said. “They’re not always capable of walking away. Eddie Eagle focuses on teaching children not to touch a gun and to alert an adult if they find a gun. Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t work.”
A study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that talking about gun safety to children often fails.
“What works are gun safety storage locks,” Nuckols said. “We know over five million children in this country live in a household with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked.”
An NRA spokesperson said the gun lobby group “supports responsible firearm storage.”
“As the foremost leader in firearms safety training, the NRA encourages all gun owners to safely store firearms so that they are inaccessible to unauthorized users. However, gun owners’ personal and living situations vary. That is why one-size-fits-all approaches will not work,” the spokesperson said.
Keeping everyone safe
Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University and a clinical psychologist, noted that suicides account for more than half of all firearm deaths.
In the same way that someone who drinks too much should have a friend drive them home, someone suffering from major depression should not have access to a gun, Anestis said.
Anestis oversaw a study of 232 Mississippi National Guard firearm owners.
“Most believed owning a gun and properly storing it didn’t matter when it came to suicide,” he said. “Instead of trying to convince them to lock their guns in a safe storage space, we spent time with them, talked to them, and listened to them.”
Anestis and his team followed up with them three and six months later.
“One man didn’t want to make any changes,” he said. “At the three-month follow-up, he still wasn’t interested. At the six-month mark, something changed. He went through a divorce and was so depressed that his brother-in-law, who had a gun permit, took his guns. When we met with him, he told us his brother-in-law saved his life because he did contemplate suicide.”
He added: “We’re not against owning guns. We’re in favor of safe storage because it keeps all of us safe.”