Firearm Safety, School Violence, and Youth Suicide

Episode 2, Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence Podcast Series

In this episode, join Drs. Marc Zimmerman, Cynthia Ewell Foster, and April Zeoli as they discuss how firearm safety plays a part in school violence, youth suicide, and youth intimate partner violence.

Explore the Series

  • Access the full Understanding Firearm-Related Injury and School Violence here
  • Listen to the series on YouTube

Resources

This podcast was produced by Katy Hunter, Research Assistant at the National Center for School Safety.

Transcript

April Zeoli: Unless parents are really locking up their guns in a way that kids can’t get to them, they can get to them. It needs to be inaccessible, meaning the kids kid can’t get into it no matter how hard they try. Once you have that gun in your hand, it’s a really short step to pulling the trigger. If there wasn’t a gun, if you didn’t have access to that gun, that step could never be taken.

Katy Hunter: Hello, and welcome to Progress Report. This podcast is produced by the National Center for School Safety based out of the University of Michigan. We serve as the STOP School Violence Program’s national training and technical assistance center, and we are focused on improving school safety and preventing school violence across the United States. This is the second episode in our series about understanding firearm-related injury and school violence. Throughout the podcast, you’ll hear the phrases “firearm injury” and “gun violence”—what we are really referring to here is injury or violence related to or involving firearms.

Today we will be discussing the way that a firearm can escalate issues including school violence, youth suicide, and intimate partner violence, as well as the importance of storing firearms safety. This episode will include parts of our interviews with three different experts. First, we will jump into our interview with Marc in which he gives us context related to mass shootings in schools and the statistics of kids’ accessibility to firearms.

Marc Zimmerman: Hi, I’m Marc Zimmerman. I’m Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. I’m also a co-director of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention and co-director of our National Center for School Safety.

Katy Hunter: Because the coverage of firearm-related injury and violence in the media tends to be focused on mass shootings, I’m curious how often are students involved in different types of firearm-related violence? Or how would you describe a comprehensive look at the threat that firearm-related injury and school violence poses to kids? 

Marc Zimmerman: Mass shootings in schools are, of course, horrific. One is too many. However, of the 44,000 people who died from firearm-related injuries in 2021, 1% were the result of mass shootings. And 10% of that 1% were in schools. Most mass shootings, about a third of them occur in the workplace, and school shootings only occur about 10% of the time, when there’s a mass shooting. 

Katy Hunter: For context, 54% of firearm-related deaths in 2021 were suicides, according to the CDC. In this discussion of mass shootings, we are following the FBI definition of mass shootings, which is when four or more people are killed other than the shooter.

Marc Zimmerman: Now, that doesn’t even count the number of people who are injured, and that doesn’t count what it does to the fabric of the school’s community as well as the community outside. Anecdotally. I’ve talked to parents from schools where there has been a shooting and there are significant post traumatic stress and trauma that affects everybody in that school and everybody outside that school. It gets to the point where people are afraid to send their child to the school because they don’t know if it’s safe. So it doesn’t happen very often. And when it does, it’s horrific and it’s systemic. It’s not just the people who were hit or killed, it’s the people who were there and experienced it. It is a very unnatural experience. 

Let me talk a little bit about that very small percentage, but significant. Just to give a sense of mass shootings in schools in the United States, from 2000 to 2009, we had an average of almost nine incidents per year. That’s a lot. Between 2010 and 2019, however, there were almost 22 incidents per year. So it more than doubled in that next decade. And we are unfortunately on our ways to sort of maintain that level. Shootings in schools do not happen very often relative to the total number of people killed by firearms in the United States. But it is increasing, it is horrific, and it is a significant issue. 

Let me also just give you some statistics about, so who are the shooters? Most of the mass shooters in schools are male. Most are current or former students of that school. Two thirds of them use a handgun, and most of them got that gun from home or a relative’s home. I mean, what those data say to me is that we really can do a better job and we have to do a better job of assuring that homes that have guns, that those guns are locked and not accessible.

Katy Hunter: A study that Marc references in our interview with him, which surveys parents and children about firearm accessibility in their homes, found that half of the kids who lived in a house with a firearm said that they could access a loaded firearm within an hour. Furthermore, a third of the kids living in a house with a firearm said that they could access a loaded firearm in under five minutes. However, about 70% of parents said that their children were not able to access a loaded firearm at all. In those parent-child dyads where the parents said that their child could not access a loaded firearm, one in three kids said that they could access a loaded firearm within an hour. And one in five kids said that they could access one in under five minutes.

Marc Zimmerman: So the parents don’t think they can get them, but they can. And if you think about it yourself as an adolescent and adolescents are pretty good at figuring things out, especially figuring out things that they probably shouldn’t do. I mean, it’s part of the growth process in some ways. The goal as adults is to make sure whatever they’re doing like that doesn’t endanger themselves or other people. But they’re curious and they’re able. And if we are successful at one less shooting, that’s one less school, one less community, and three or four or five or however many lives saved and however many lives not injured by a bullet.

Katy Hunter: As Marc explained, although mass shootings are horrific and can greatly affect a wide community beyond those who experience direct injury, other instances of firearm-related violence have a higher statistical relevance to youth. One of the leading instances of youth firearm violence in the United States is youth suicide, which we first discussed with Cindy.

Cindy Ewell Foster: My name is Cindy Ewell Foster, and I’m a child clinical psychologist by training. Actually, I am an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, and I’m affiliated with U-M’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

Katy Hunter: How did you become interested in your work in child psychology and firearm injury prevention? 

Cindy Ewell Foster: You know, I’ve gotten interested in the past few years about the role of firearms in a suicide prevention strategy and this public health approach to suicide prevention. And the reason that I got interested in this is that, if you look at the surveillance data and you understand that over half of the people who die in the United States by suicide are using a firearm to end their lives. If you’re really interested in reducing deaths in the United States by suicide, we have to think about the role of firearms. And this isn’t meant to be in any way a political statement at all. It’s really just about health and safety and, really making sure that kids are growing up in safe environments. And so because of just the number of deaths that are related to firearms, that’s how I got interested in the role of firearms as a suicide prevention strategy.

What I’d like to talk about a little bit is, what is a public health approach to suicide prevention and how might that interface with school safety? And in particular, helping schools to think about firearms is a really important part of a public health approach to suicide prevention. And how schools can be working in that space with families in a real respectful and collaborative way to just be sure that kids are safer.

Katy Hunter: Would you be able to elaborate more on how firearm safety goes hand in hand with youth suicide prevention? 

Cindy Ewell Foster: I mentioned before that firearms are responsible for 55% of the suicide deaths in the United States. Among youth under the age of 18 it’s about 46% of suicides are completed with a firearm. And I just wanna take a minute and kind of, I think, talk about why this is so critical as a suicide prevention intervention. And let me tell you why I feel so passionately about this. So number one, there’s a lot of kids in this country who are hurting and thinking about ending their lives, and the people who love them don’t know. They don’t know. Kids are great at hiding stuff from their parents. They’re great at hiding stuff from their teachers. We are losing kids in this country every day to suicide and people didn’t know they were hurting, right? They’re surprised. And if that young person can get their hands on a firearm when nobody knows they’re in trouble, we are very unlikely to have a second chance to get that kid the help that they need.

If you look at the kids who have died by suicide in the United States on their first attempt, eight times out of ten they’re using a firearm. So we have to be sure that kids can’t get their hands on on a firearm, and we can’t rely on knowing that our kid is at risk, before we start storing safely. I think the other thing that’s really important to this idea of “someone’s gonna find a way regardless.” If you look at national data following people who have tried to end their lives and survived, 98% of those people are still alive 25 years later. Okay? So they don’t keep trying. And if they, in that moment, when they make that decision to try to end their lives, if they can’t get their hands on a firearm, they’re just much more likely to survive. And then we can get that person the help that they need.

I just think one of the ways that we can make sure that our kids are safe and that they’re growing up in safe environments, is just to be sure that there’s not an unsecured firearm in the home. And, what do I mean by safe and what’s secure? What is recommended is that firearms in the home be stored locked, that the ammunition be separated from the firearm, the ammunition be stored, locked, and of course the firearm be unloaded. I work a lot in rural communities in Michigan and I know that there are a lot of families where firearms are really like just a positive, important part of family culture and community culture. And there’s a lot of ways that kids feel connected and belonging related to hunting and being outdoors with family and all that. And, so, what I’m talking about really is not meant to cast any sort of negativity around those dynamics in so many communities. But it really is just this idea of we put our babies in car seats when they were little, right? We baby proofed our houses. Storing your firearm securely when you have teenagers is like baby proofing your house for teenagers. So I think it’s a important way that systems around kids can keep them safer.

Katy Hunter: We also discussed the issue of youth suicide with April, before covering another leading instance of youth firearm violence, intimate partner violence.

April Zeoli: My name is April Zeoli, and I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the U-M School of Public Health. And I’m also the director of the Policy Core for the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, and I am a firearm policy analyst.

Katy Hunter: What have you seen in how accessibility of a firearm can affect the issue of youth suicide? 

April Zeoli: We know that suicide risk peaks in adolescence before it goes down and peaks again in elder adulthood. So getting a gun away from a teen who is suicidal is incredibly important to saving their life. One thing that is very important for people to remember is that means matter when it comes to suicide. The method that you choose to attempt suicide with is highly determinative of whether you will die. And if you use a gun, nine times out of ten, and probably a little more than that, you are going to die. If you attempt in any other way, you have a good chance of living. And people who attempt once, and survive, often don’t attempt suicide again.

Katy Hunter: In a similar vein to how firearm accessibility affects youth suicide, how does firearm safety play a role in youth intimate partner violence? 

April Zeoli: Youth have among the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the country, right? Of any age group. It starts in adolescence and then it kind of peaks in the college years and stays high for a while, but then goes down with age. But we form these habits, we form our relationship skills in adolescence. Sometimes we form really dangerous and destructive relationship skills. And we do see dating violence among youth. We do see intimate partner homicide among youth. If there’s an intimate partner homicide, it is more than likely committed with a gun because again, unless parents are really locking up their guns in a way that kids can’t get to them, they can get to them. Kids tend to know where things are in the house. Parents may not realize it, but kids are savvy.

If the gun is someplace that they’re pretty sure the kid never looks but it’s not locked up, that gun is accessible and can be used. It needs to be inaccessible, meaning the kid can’t get into it no matter how hard they try. So it’s safe. Intimate partner violence among youth, intimate partner homicide among youth, is rarer than a little bit older ages. But it still happens and even when a homicide doesn’t occur we’re talking about lasting damage, physical damage sometimes, but mainly psychological and emotional damage that could lead to depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and adding a gun into that mix really ups the ante on dangerousness.

Katy Hunter: One last thing I wanna ask. Is there anything that we haven’t covered today that you want to make sure our listeners hear? 

April Zeoli: I wanna make sure people understand that firearm injury is preventable. People often get it in their heads that if someone can’t get a gun one way, they’ll get a gun another way. Or if they can’t use a gun, they’ll still commit that type of violence. And research suggests that those things are not true. That might be true for some, for the extremes, but as I mentioned if someone attempts suicide in any other method with any other method than a firearm, they have a really good chance of surviving that attempt. If someone has access to a gun and they’re really upset with their intimate partner, they’re trying to control their intimate partner, they have these really unhealthy and abusive relationship skills and they have access to that gun, they may use it and maybe they’re just gonna threaten or that’s what they think they’re gonna do. But once you have that gun in your hand, it’s a really short step to pulling the trigger.

If there wasn’t a gun, if you didn’t have access to that gun, that step could never be taken, right? Even if there’s some kind of blunt object sitting next to you, like just thinking of the game Clue, maybe there’s a lead pipe sitting next to you and you pick it up. You are not going to be able to harm and kill someone with a lead pipe as effectively as you can with a gun, because a gun is a range weapon and it does an incredibly damaging job to the body that no other weapon replicates.

Katy Hunter: In the next episode of Progress Report.

April Zeoli: So policy can do a lot of different things. It’s actually really flexible. Extreme Risk Protection Orders are a civil court order that temporarily suspends a person’s right to purchase and possess a gun. And I think it’s really important to just emphasize again that Extreme Risk Protection Orders are civil court orders. That teen is not going to have a criminal record because of this Extreme Protection Order. It’s a civil court order specifically, so it can be lifesaving and not detrimental to that person’s life.

Brent Miller: Thank you for tuning into this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website nc2s.org. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is thanks to Mackay Beats. This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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Duration

19:14

Topic Areas

Mental Health, School Climate

Crisis Timeline

Prevention Planning

Audience

School Personnel

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