|by Jim McJunkin and Patrick Kerr
Published in the WV Gazette-Mail
In the past week, a Kanawha County man was shot and killed, allegedly by a family member. The victim had voiced concern about whether the gun could be removed from his family member, who reportedly had known mental health issues and had, in the recent past, allegedly brandished the gun at the victim.
Only three months ago, yet another firearm-related tragedy occurred when a mother in Greenbrier County shot and killed her five children, all of whom were between the ages of 1 and 7. That fatality number is five, fitting the definition (greater than four) for a mass shooting.
These horrific, preventable lethal events within families should be a wake-up call to the rising number of gun-related deaths in West Virginia, an increase that began well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past decade, through 2019, the number of firearm fatalities in West Virginia has risen an astonishing 78%. By 2019, West Virginia had the fifth-highest suicide rate per capita in the United States, and ranked 13th in gun-related fatalities. Unintentional firearm deaths over the past two years have involved children as young as 2 and 3, who found loaded, unsecured guns in the home.
It is certainly true that multiple risk factors contribute to any firearm death. However, we also must not turn a blind eye to the risk of death that simply having access to a firearm contributes. If you have a gun in your home, it is more likely to kill someone known to the family than to be used on an intruder.
A gun kept in the home triples the risk of homicide, raises the risk of suicide fivefold and increases a woman’s fatality risk from domestic violence five times over. Rigorous studies have shown that the greatest single predictor of youth suicide in a state is the rate of household gun ownership.
Having said this, the reality is that West Virginia, with its hunting and recreational shooting heritage, likely will continue to have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the United States. For these homes, firearm injury prevention becomes a matter of responsible gun ownership; such ownership begins with responsible gun storage.
The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes in its recent gun safety campaign the “Four L’s” of gun safety, (noting that one of the “L’s” actually is “unLoaded”): 1) Is the gun Locked? 2) Is the gun unLoaded; 3) Are their there Little ones in the home?; and; 4) Is anyone feeling Low? In addition, with young children in the home, it is essential to store and secure ammunition separately.
Indeed, these are key questions for families with guns in the home to continually ask themselves, and if the answers raise red flags, as they might have in the above-mentioned Kanawha and Greenbrier shootings, families should recheck the adequacy of gun storage — or even remove the gun from the home, if only on a temporary basis, while mental health crises are addressed.
In practice, the best approach is to maximize gun storage efforts in the home as if someone is in crisis.
While some would assert that they would surely know if someone in their home was suicidal, consider this: A 2019 study of over 5,000 adolescents published in the journal Pediatrics found that 50% of parents or caregivers were completely unaware of their child’s thoughts of suicide; and over 75% were unaware of their child’s recurrent thoughts about dying.
Unsafe firearm storage is a gamble with someone else’s life, since suicidal thinking, especially in teenagers, is frequently not picked up by other family members. (A good resource for mental health crises is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, and for gun safety tips for parents is besmartforkids.org)
From a legislative standpoint, safe storage laws and extreme-risk laws, which have reduced firearm fatalities in other states, could do so in West Virginia, where, notably, suicides make up 75% of firearm fatalities. Extreme-risk laws (aka “red flag laws”) empower loved ones or law enforcement to seek intervention through the courts (thus involving due process) to temporarily prevent people who are at high risk of harming themselves or others from accessing firearms.
It’s conceivable that some of the intrafamily killings mentioned, or even the death of Charleston Patrolman Cassie Johnson, might have been averted if extreme-risk laws were in place.
While it is fair to say that extreme-risk laws are not likely to gain traction with the current Legislature, the safety net that such laws could provide is worth considering, since the inception in 2016 of “permitless concealed carry” which dropped the requirement for a background check and safety training. It’s also worth considering that, since 2016, gun-related deaths have reached an all-time high in West Virginia.
In view of the rising tide of firearm fatalities, it is discouraging that out of the more than two-dozen “gun bills” introduced in the 2021 Legislature — which again include campus-carry legislation, for example — only two would appear to address rising firearm fatalities, in our view.
We would like to credit Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, for sponsoring the two bills that could make an initial step toward reducing gun deaths by offering tax incentives to those who purchase firearm safety equipment, such as gun locks and safes, helping families to make safety their first priority in owning a firearm.
We urge all of our legislators to respond to the increasing firearm fatalities affecting our citizens, especially our children, who seem to be canaries in a coal mine whose loss raises no alarm.
How we respond to this warning will have much to do with making the Mountain State the safest and most desirable place for our children and grandchildren to grow up.
Dr. Jim McJunkin is the chairman of the Injury Prevention Committee of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Patrick L. Kerr is a licensed clinical psychiatrist living in Charleston.