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A chalk-drawn handgun being erased on a black chalkboard

To reduce school shootings, keep guns out of kids’ hands

It takes the human brain decades to develop good judgment. Gun laws should reflect that.
Filed Under
Written by
Michael Rosenbaum
February 21, 2024
Read Time
6 min

U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) once proposed “an automatic death penalty for school shooters,” after a 28-year-old man killed three children and three adults at a school in Nashville, Tennessee. He almost got his wish when 17-year-old Ethan Crumbley was sentenced to life without parole for killing four of his classmates and injuring seven others in a 2021 school shooting.

Scott’s proposal is just one example of the inefficacy of our way of thinking about gun violence, school shootings, and children’s access to firearms. Like Scott’s “solution,” most U.S. laws assume that children are just young adults—and that deterrents will be effective across all age groups.

This approach has not worked. Despite increased media coverage and no small amount of outrage, the number of school shootings per year has increased by 600 percent over the last decade, with more than 300 in 2023. The perpetrators of most of these shootings are children, with an average age of 16 years (versus 37 years for the non-school shooter), and their crimes have been blamed on easy school building access and on ineffectual staff; on “wokeness” and critical race theory; on a culture of violence perpetuated by videogames, teens’ use of Ritalin, increasing rates of teenage mental illness, and lack of both prayer and faith in God.

One indisputable cause, however, rarely makes the list: Teens’ development is not complete, and they therefore cannot be counted on to use guns safely. This physiological limitation in adolescent judgment means that preventing school shootings requires addressing a problem largely ignored: It’s too easy for kids to get their hands on guns.

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The human brain develops in stages. The first systems to fully come online control emotion, desire, and reward; those controlling impulse control, long-range planning, and judgement come much later. Full emotional reactivity is in place around age 10, but brain areas relevant to rationality and restraint—which have the final say regarding executive functions such as common sense—are not fully engaged until the late teen years or mid-20s. The disconnection between emotion and rational thinking forms the biological basis for youthful predilection toward risky behavior—which can be deadly when youth are holding a loaded weapon.

The usual methods of deterring adult gun violence simply don’t work, in part because they presume that teens are just younger adults. Large, long-term studies show mixed results on whether metal detectors in schools reduce the risk of violence among students, and some research suggests that the presence of metal detectors may even make students feel less safe. Meanwhile, kids in schools with too many security measures experience more victimization, independent of the level of crime in the school.

Gun safety programs also do little to prevent children from handling firearms in unsupervised situations. While it would be great if there were a litmus test to identify potential school shooters, the Safe School Initiative of 2020, a white paper by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, reported that “there is no accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” Since we can’t know who might be a school shooter, we need to make it harder for everyone to become one—just like locking a car’s doors makes it harder for anyone to steal it.

What’s shameful is that we know what does work: legislative restrictions to limit children’s ability to buy and carry firearms and to increase safe storage of guns.

Comprehensive reviews of laws which limit access to guns for people under 18 show that those laws reduce the rate of gun-carrying and the frequency of student reports of threats or injuries on school property by almost 20 percent. The incidence of school shootings is significantly lower in states like Massachusetts and Hawaii, which have more stringent child firearm access prevention. Epidemiological reviews have shown that programs to increase safe firearm storage—itself a form of limiting access—significantly decrease the number of children dying by suicide. And a 2023 meta-analysis of more than 150 studies of U.S. gun control policies found, unequivocally, that access prevention laws “are effective at reducing firearm deaths.”

Other research shows that as state firearm laws get more permissive, the likelihood of school shootings goes up. Yet as of 2023, only 34 states have any child access protection laws; only 12 have assault weapons bans; and only 8 have safe storage or gun lock requirements. In most states, violation of these laws are only misdemeanors.

Legislatures must make it harder for kids to buy guns and to carry them unsupervised in public, and both parents and legislators must limit access to guns in homes. More than half of all gun owners with children in their home do not practice safe firearm storage, even though more than two-thirds of the guns used in school shootings or in adolescent firearm suicides belong to a relative or friend.

Laws limiting children’s access to guns will save more than the lives lost in school shootings: They will also protect thousands of children from the long-term collateral damage of these crimes. Children suffer especially acutely when exposed to the sudden disruption of the “safe haven” of school. They often experience mental illness; they drop out of school; they experience post-traumatic stress disorder and violent behavior. Lawmakers, educators, parents, and others need to better address the concerns of the majority of U.S. teens who fear that a shooting could happen at their school. The data show that laws limiting children’s ability to access firearms at home, to buy them, and to carry them in public are the best ways to keep guns out of school and address the burgeoning numbers of school shootings and all its casualties.

By recognizing the developmental limitations of childhood and adolescence, child access protection laws are neither for nor against gun control. They are about the country’s children, not about the Second Amendment. Most adults can recall moments in their own lives, or their children’s, when lack of restraint or emotional power won out over common sense. If someone is too young to responsibly drink or rent a car, how can they be old enough to walk around with a Sig Sauer 9mm handgun like Ethan Crumbley?

Image: Gangis_Khan / iStock

Filed Under
Michael Rosenbaum
Michael Rosenbaum is a professor emeritus and special lecturer in pediatrics and medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and a pediatrician in New York City. He is also a member of the Columbia Narrative Medicine Journalism Workshop.

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