Most gun owners believe they are responsible. And they well may be, but that can’t mean much to the family of Lourdes Guzman DeJesus, the 13-year-old Homestead girl fatally shot on a school bus by 15-year-old Jordyn Alexander Howe, a boy showing off the gun his stepfather left on a closet shelf.
Nor does it negate the fact that over the past five years more than 10,000 children died by gunfire in the United States — 570 in Florida alone.
As adults, we all hold some responsibility for Lourdes’ death — for not doing more, for not demanding more, to keep our children separate from our guns.
Jordyn Howe’s mother reportedly didn’t know there was a gun in her home. But her teenage son did. He knew exactly where his stepfather kept the apparently loaded and unlocked firearm. That’s not unusual. Studies show that most kids know if and where a gun is kept in their home, even when their parents say their children have no idea. And when parents believe their kids would never dare touch their gun — that they know better — that doesn’t pan out either. Many kids admit they already have.
If a doctor had asked Jordyn if there was a gun in his home, he may have said, “Yes,” perhaps bringing about a lifesaving conversation with his mother. Jordyn’s doctor could have facilitated an important revelation to Ms. Howe, and helped her discuss preventing a potential tragedy with her husband, perhaps removal of the gun from the home — the safest option. Or, if the stepfather was determined to keep his gun at home, she could have guided him to ensure the weapon was stored locked and/or unloaded, which in a home with children substantially reduces the risk of gun death and suicide.
However, just about the time that Jordyn would have been due for his 14-year-old medical checkup, the Florida Legislature passed the nation’s first law banning doctors from asking questions about access to firearms.
Doctors are not cure-alls, but they are one part of a multifaceted solution that can keep our homes, communities, buses and schools safer for children by separating them from guns. We need better laws, enforcement and most importantly, responsible gun owning parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who will really practice safety — not by “hiding” loaded guns on shelves, in drawers or shoe boxes, but by securely locking firearms so that children (including teens) can’t get to them.
Florida’s Child Access Prevention Law already makes it a felony for a gun owner to leave a firearm where a child can access it, brandish it in public or use it to harm another person. Nationally, in most unintentional shootings, the shooter is a minor; the victim is usually even younger, and most often a friend or sibling. Imagine growing up with the guilt of killing your brother, sister or friend. The gun usually comes from the home of a family member or friend. In this case, 15-year-old Howe, charged with manslaughter and carrying a concealed weapon, may be tried as an adult.
The real adult, the gun owner, has not been charged — and likely won’t be. Apparently, authorities believe leaving a gun on a closet shelf is a “reasonable” attempt to secure it.
We need to do better at holding gun owners accountable when they fail to keep kids and guns separate. Or, we could do better prevention. We could get serious and securely separate kids and guns.
We also need all adults who love adolescents to stop thinking that youngsters know better, that they will resist the temptation to play with guns. Some might, but many don’t. Not always. Not reliably. Their brains are still developing, and the ability to think through consequences is still forming. By their very nature, they are impulsive, risk-taking and emotional. They yearn to be adult-like, sometimes in all the wrong ways. They want to show off and impress. They are both afraid and emboldened. They sometimes do stupid things. They make mistakes — it is how they learn — but making a lethal mistake with a gun is an eternal tragedy, for the shooters, the people they shoot, and their families.
Americans want guns, lots of guns. Fine, keep the guns. But let’s recognize that we have a problem with children accessing firearms and ammunition.
Is it really so hard to keep guns away from kids?
Isn’t it better to keep a gun in a locked box than forever bury a child in a box? Ask Lourdes’ mother.
Isn’t it better to lock up a gun than lock up a child in a cell? Ask Jordyn’s stepdad.