The headline was heartbreaking: “Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens.”
It turns out that the numbers were not as fresh as the news. Because of the delays involved in collecting and analyzing data, the gruesome record reported last month was reached in 2019. That means that it does not include data from 2020, during which a record number of guns were purchased, many by first-time gun owners.
The 2019 numbers did include the local death of a six-year-old who was sleeping on the couch in her family home when a drive-by shooting killed her in October 2019 in my city. But they do not include the 15-year-old shot and killed a couple of weeks before Christmas as he left a community meeting about the deadly police shooting of 19-year-old Arthur Keith in November 2020. Nor do they reflect the loss of the five-year-old boy who died last month of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The numbers, as horrifying as they are, do not include any of the exponentially larger number of children injured or traumatized by gun violence nationally, a tragedy recounted by John Woodrow Cox in Children Under Fire: An American Crisis.
Certainly, we are in crisis if gun violence now presents the highest risk of death for children whom we have pledged to raise in peace, who should never have to see a gun. The numbers can be numbing. As they continue mount, they may appear insurmountable.
But there are things that we can do in our own congregations to dial back the danger.
Of course, repenting of our violent ways, teaching and preaching the gospel of peace that shuns weapons and wields healing hands instead of firearms is a good, perhaps the best, place to start. Of course, we know, too, that not everyone will agree to give up their guns to be beaten into garden tools.
As I mention in Whom Shall We Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, as we return to Sunday School or youth programming, we have an opportunity — whether it takes place in person or online — to inform and educate families as we ask for their information to register their young people. Advice about the risks of keeping guns in the home and education about the safe storage of guns, if a family really must keep one, could save young children from accidental triggers, adolescents from access to the most deadly means of suicide, and keep guns out of the hands of others who simply should not have them because of the harm and havoc they can sow.
Several years ago, a fellow parent was concerned about a turning-teenaged child who was getting into trouble at home and online. “They know how to get into everything,” their parent despaired.
I sympathized, but I also worried: “You’ve told me before that you keep a gun at home, and now you’ve told me that your child knows how to get into everything. What are you doing to keep them from getting that gun?,” I asked point-blank.
We can do no less — including our churches and Sunday Schools.
The headline is heartbreaking and troubling. But,
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17, Book of Common Prayer)