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Safe Storage

Why Would a Nine-Year-Old Bring a Gun to School?

Since the start of the school year, more than two dozen kids have been caught bringing firearms to class. A sociologist helps to understand the phenomenon.

Last week, a teacher at Amanda Elementary School in Middletown, Ohio, found a loaded handgun inside the backpack of a 9-year-old boy while helping him clean out his locker. The incident triggered a lockdown, and the unidentified boy, who reportedly stole his parents’ car twice this summer, was placed in a juvenile detention facility and charged with illegal possession of a deadly weapon and firearm theft.

When a student so young brings a deadly weapon to school, a number of questions arise: How did they get their hands on it? Why wasn’t it safely stored? Will the parents be charged? And what would make a child bring a gun to school in the first place?

Since the school year began roughly one month ago, there have been at least 29 incidents in which elementary, middle school, and high school students were caught bringing firearms to school, according to a survey of media reports. Most have involved teenagers.

But not all. Just last week, an unidentified elementary school student in Lowgap, North Carolina, was discovered showing a peer a .22-caliber handgun on a school bus. The boy’s parents were charged with misdemeanor failing to properly store a firearm to protect a minor. On August 25, a third grader in east Augusta, Georgia, brought a .380-caliber handgun to class that he found atop a kitchen cabinet in his home. As he searched through his desk for a toy it discharged, grazing a classmate. School safety police said the gun was owned by the boyfriend of the child’s grandmother, who now faces one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. And on August 19, a Georgia special needs student brought a loaded Kel Tec 380 handgun to his middle school. The child, who had been dropped off by his mother that morning, told police he had obtained the weapon from the car. The student had pulled the gun from his book bag and said “Lookey what I got.” 

America’s 55 million school children pack heat at a surprising rate. A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 5.4 percent of students nationwide had carried a weapon (e.g. a gun, knife, or club) on school property on at least one day during the month before they were surveyed. In large urban school districts, this figure varies when narrowed down to firearms: According to the National Association of School Psychologists, 7.5 percent of students in the Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school, compared to 2.3 percent in New York City. 

Students who face harassment are among the most likely to bring a weapon to school. A further analysis of the 2011 CDC study by Andrew Adesman, a New York-based developmental and behavioral pediatrician, found that more than 200,000 bullied high school students carried some type of a weapon to campus each month, and were 34 times more likely to carry a gun. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics last month found that 10 percent of children with one or both parents in the military (a population of kids that faces disproportionate bullyinghave brought a gun to school in the past, something the study’s author attributes to the instability of military life, which includes frequent moves and parental separation. 

But it’s hard to imagine a third grader reaching for a Glock to end a spat in the sandbox. Why would a child that young bring a firearm to class?

The ubiquity of guns in America (there are roughly 300 million in total) means that more young kids are encountering them in the home, notes Paul Hirschfield, a sociology professor at Rutgers University. According to a Pew survey from last year, a third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises, and an article published in JAMA Pediatrics today reports that states with higher level of adult gun ownership see more adolescents carrying guns. Hirschfield, whose research centers on the juvenile justice system, says that for some kids who brandish in elementary school, there’s a certain show-and-tell element at play.

“It could be that they fetishize guns,” he tells The Trace. “It could be that some of these kids love guns, and why not bring them to school?”

Kids lack the risk-assessment ability of adults, Hirschfield says, so while they may be vaguely aware that they could be expelled for bringing a weapon to school, that doesn’t necessarily stop them. Elementary and middle school brandishers are overwhelmingly preteen boys, and “their brains are not fully developed.” 

“The fact that they’re that young, it doesn’t surprise me,” says Hirschfield, “because in our society we often fail to keep guns out of the reach of young children.”

Failing to safely store guns can be lethal for children, who are far more likely to be killed at home than in a mass shooting: According to CDC statistics, nearly 800 children under 14 were killed in gun accidents from 1999 to 2010. Nearly a third of households with children younger than 12 fail to lock up their guns, according to a 2006 study by Harvard’s Dr. David Hemenway. The same study found that parents of adolescents in particular appear to be more likely to keep guns unsecured in the home.

There exists no federal requirement for the storage of firearms, but eleven states and a number of municipalities have passed their own laws. (In addition, a total of 27 states have enacted child access prevention laws, which impose criminal liability on adults.) And while research shows that storage requirements can dissuade school shooters and prevent accidental shootings, they have sometimes met stiff resistance.

The National Rifle Association has labeled universal mandatory storage requirements “counterproductive,” and slammed laws like Los Angeles’ recently passed storage ordinance. “So-called safe storage laws have nothing to do with safety, they merely serve as a tool for gun control politicians to disarm law-abiding gun owners,” a spokesperson said.  For another gun-rights organization, preventing child access to firearms is the rare patch of common ground with violence prevention advocates. Bill Brassard, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told USA Today in 2013, “Safe storage is absolutely critical to preventing the misuse of firearms.” 

Here’s a complete list of recored incidents of school children bringing guns to American schools so far this year:

A 3rd grader in east Augusta, Georgia brought a .380-caliber handgun to class that he’d found atop a kitchen cabinet in his home, and his grandmother’s boyfriend was charged. (August 25)

9-year-old boy was taken into custody after an elementary school teacher in Middletown, Ohio, found a loaded handgun inside his backpack while helping him clean out his locker. (September 10)

An 11-year-old Nashville boy was arrested after bringing an unloaded .25-caliber pistol to school in his backpack and threatening to shoot another student if he told an adult. (September 9)

A 12-year-old student at an elementary school on the South Side of Chicago was arrested after telling police that he brought a gun to school because was being bullied by another student. (September 14)

An unidentified elementary school student showed an unloaded .22-caliber handgun to his friend on a school bus in Lowgap, North Carolina, and his parents were charged. (September 17)

An unidentified special needs child brought a loaded Kel Tec 380 handgun that he’d grabbed out of the center console of his mother’s car to his middle school in Dalton, Georgia. (August 19)

12-year-old in Omaha, Nebraska, faces charges after leaving his middle school campus and returning with an unloaded gun after arguing with another student. (September 10)

A 7th grader was arrested after bringing an unloaded gun onto a school bus and showing it to his friends in West Monroe, Louisiana. (September 1)

Two handguns were discovered in two separate incidents on the same day at Sherwood Middle School in Columbus, Ohio. A 13-year-old student triggered a lockdown when a parent tipped off authorities that he would bring a gun to school, and a weapon belonging to another student, a 14-year-old, was discovered in the resulting related search. (September 2)

An unidentified student was arrested after bringing a handgun into his Geismar, Louisiana, high school. (August 20)

A school police officer seized a handgun from an unidentified student at a high school in Columbus, Ohio. (September 2)

A 14-year-old girl was taken into custody after a loaded 9mm Ruger handgun was found in her backpack at her Wilmington, North Carolina, middle school. (September 17)

A 14-year-old boy was arrested when teachers at his Lafayette, Indiana, high school, acting on a student tip, discovered a loaded .22-caliber revolver in his possession. (September 16)

15-year-old high school student in Pensacola, Florida, who was “often” seen carrying a firearm and had been harassing a female classmate, was arrested after a loaded and chambered 9mm pistol was found in his backpack. (September 2)

A 15-year-old boy was taken into custody after bringing a loaded 9mm handgun into his Thornton, Colorado, high school. (August 20)

16-year-old boy in Mangham, Louisiana, was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen firearm and possession of a firearm on school grounds after he brought a stolen gun to school. (September 17)

A 16-year-old with gang affiliations faces gun charges after bringing a loaded .40-caliber handgun to school in a Hello Kitty backpack in Omaha, Nebraska. (August 31)

A 16-year-old brought a loaded .25 caliber handgun into his Tampa, Florida, high school and was arrested after police received an anonymous tip. (September 14)

A 16-year-old high school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was arrested after telling police he brought a .45-caliber revolver to class because he thought other students were going to jump him. (September 14)

A 16-year-old high school student in Plaquemine, Louisiana, was arrested for bringing a loaded .22-caliber pistol to school and threatening to use it on another student. (August 14)

A 16-year-old boy said to be in a gang was placed into custody after showing a gun to a 15-year-old high school classmate, who alerted school officials in Tunica, Mississippi. (September 9)

An 11th grader was found with a gun in his backpack after several calls were made to school officials in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (September 3)

A 17-year-old smuggled a handgun into his Newark, Ohio, high school in his backpack and showed it to more than one student. (August 24)

A 17-year-old was arrested for bringing a loaded gun into his south Toledo, Ohio, high school. (September 8)

A 17-year-old boy trying to enroll in a continuation school in Hampton, Virginia, was arrested for disorderly conduct and police found a loaded gun in his possession. (September 16)

A 17-year-old high school student faces two to eight years in prison after an assistant principal, acting on a tip, found a loaded pistol in his locker in Indianapolis, Indiana. (September 15)

An 18-year-old who had been fighting with a classmate set off a metal detector at his high school in Thomson, Georgia, and school officials discovered a handgun in his possession. (August 14)

An 18-year-old was arrested in Park Vista, California, after school officials found a .25-caliber handgun in his possession while on campus. (September 16)

19-year-old in Lake Worth, Florida, was arrested after being found with a gun on his high school campus. (September 17)

[Photo: Flickr user Jason Devaun]