In the first week of April, a 14-year-old girl in Jonesboro, Arkansas, found her father’s rifle during a game of hide-and-seek. The gun went off, killing her friend.
It was exactly the kind of tragic accident Rebekah Evans had worried about since the coronavirus crisis forced schools to close in her community. Arkansas has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the United States, and the pandemic has driven millions of Americans to purchase weapons, often for the first time. With kids cooped up at home, and looking for ways to entertain themselves, the conditions for tragedy were ripe.
Evans, who is the volunteer group leader of Jonesboro’s chapter of Moms Demand Action, a gun violence prevention advocacy group, was spurred to act. She convened a Zoom meeting with a handful of other local activists to brainstorm about ways to distribute information about the importance of safely storing guns — especially if a child is around. Recalling reports of a high demand for food in the area, they called local food pantries and asked to distribute pamphlets from Moms Demand’s Be Smart program, which promotes safe gun storage, alongside food and other emergency supplies.
“It’s hard to know how to be helpful in our communities right now, so it was gratifying to do something concrete and something I hope will keep children safe in their homes,” Evans said. (Moms Demand Action is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which provides grants to The Trace through its nonpolitical arm.)
Evans said food pantries have handed out more than 200 pamphlets and are asking for more.
According to preliminary data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, accidental shootings have increased since shelter-in-place orders have been issued nationally. In March and April, 21 children under the age of 17 were unintentionally killed by guns, a 43 percent increase over the same period last year. Another 35 children were injured and survived, a 33 percent increase.
In recent months, gun safety groups, government agencies, and firearms industry groups across the country have been making an extra effort to educate people about how to store guns safely. The campaigns promote locking up guns in secure containers or with a gun lock, and ensuring they are unloaded and stored away from ammunition. Research shows that storing firearms this way can prevent accidental shootings, suicides, and gun thefts.
Kyleanne Hunter, the vice president of programs for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group, said it is especially concerning that so many of the people who have bought guns in recent months appear to be first-time gun buyers who don’t have access to the training and other support that they would during normal times.
“Safe storage is not something that people think about when they first buy a gun,” said Hunter, who is a gun owner. “It’s like when you go to the pet store and say, ‘Aw, that puppy’s really cute!’ And then you get home and think, ‘Uh oh, who’s going to let it out?’”
Jenna Sullivan, an associate pastor at the Magnolia Road Church in Jonesboro and coordinator of the Community Services Center Friends and Neighbors Network food distribution program, said she stuck safe storage pamphlets right next to the cornflakes in the boxes that went home to families last month.
Sullivan said guns can be a polarizing issue in her congregation: Some people own firearms and feel strongly about their Second Amendment rights; others are open about disliking guns. But she said it’s important to seek common ground. “I’m pretty committed to finding ways to talk about these things without losing trust or respect, and while keeping a compassionate mindset,” she said.
“I hope people got the information and had that brief moment of being reminded to store guns safely,” Sullivan said. “I think that makes a difference.”