Can principals play an larger role in the divisive debates over access to firearms and gun safety? The Biden administration thinks so.
“We cannot come to you with unrealistic expectations. But as a principal, you have the unique ability to communicate with the school community. You are the messenger,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona at a recent White House town hall event.
His remarks, delivered to a roomful of school principals, could have applied to any number of topics, like academic recovery, behavior management, or school improvement. But the focus was squarely on principals’ roles as guardians, and their sobering duty to keep kids safe.
Cardona, joined by first lady Jill Biden and other White House officials, are urging principals to leverage their role as leaders in their communities to spark a conversation with parents about safe firearms storage.
“You can show parents they can be part of preventing the next school shooting, the next accident or suicide,” said Biden.
Over a third of gun-owning parents don’t lock up their firearms, and another third store their firearms loaded, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Guns acquired from home or homes of relatives and friends, the officials said, make up between 70 and 90 percent of the guns used in school shootings, unintentional shootings, and youth firearm suicides.
Cardona followed this up by noting what prevention can accomplish in real terms: “If half of these households switched to locking these guns, we could save 251 young lives in a single year,” he said, citing a 2019 article from the research journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The White House also released a set of resources which include a letter template addressed to parents with tips about storing ammunition and trigger locks. Principals can help “de-stigmatize” this practical conversation on gun safety, Cardona told an audience of school leaders.
A step in the right direction
Although school shootings remain statistically rare, the number of incidents in 2023 that resulted in injuries or deaths was the second-highest for any year since Education Week began tracking them in 2018. Just one month into the current year, three school shootings thus far have resulted in death or injuries.
In recent years, more districts have leaned into safe gun storage as a preventative strategy, sending reminders home with parents to secure their weapons.
Greg Johnson, the principal at West Liberty-Salem High School in Champaign County, Ohio, has had first-hand experience with shooting on his school campus.
In 2017, he and a colleague talked down an student shooter who had already critically injured another student. Johnson said his school has adopted a number of measures intended to increase safety since then, including hiring a school resource officer and an additional mental health counselor. Prevention, though, is always his top priority.
“This is like adding seat belts and airbags to a car. You can’t prevent traffic accidents, but you can make the car safer,” Johnson said.“ … This [gun storage initiative] broadens the perspective to the home. It’s a new direction but it’s the right one.”
At West Liberty-Salem, Johnson and his leadership team are mulling over how to broach the subject of safe firearm storage with parents. As an initial idea, Johnson said schools could organize pick-up drives, allowing parents to collecttrigger locks used to safely store guns.
There are other ways to broach this conversation with parents, said Kris Brown, the president of Brady, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. (She did not participate in the event.)
They could consider having a town hall when kids are coming back to school about safe gun storage. PTAs can also lift some of the pressure off principals, perhaps by hosting an “Ask Day” for parents who want to find out things like if there’s an unlocked gun in a house where they’re sending their kids for a playdate. School leaders can collaborate with local law enforcement to speak with parents about the dangers of unsafe gun storage. And ideally, administrators need to give parents the tools and vocabulary to ask uncomfortable questions.
“This is what takes the issue from a political one to a practical one. And it can save kids’ lives,” said Brown.
Separate the political from the practical
According to a research note by Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit organization that works to end gun violence, 26 states have passed child access and/or secure storage laws for firearms, and research has found this can reduce the number of unintentional injuries and deaths among young people.
Cardona stressed that safe firearm storage shouldn’t be a partisan issue. “We’re not saying don’t have [firearms]. We’re just saying keep them safe,” he said in response to a question on how to tackle this conversation with parents.
Officials also demonstrated to principals what types of locks could be used for safe firearm storage. Trigger or cable locks can help in a family with younger kids, but they don’t deter theft. For households with older kids who may be able to break through a cable lock, officials recommended storing guns in a safe or lockbox.
Johnson said he supported this Biden administration’s efforts and recognizes his role on the frontlines of keeping students safe. But any conversation involving guns can be a sensitive one, he acknowledged.
“People in my own community have different opinions on gun reform. But we have to find common ground to make kids safer. The topic of gun storage is a step in that direction. It can still be a divisive topic but I hope we don’t avoid it,” he said.
He stressed that principals don’t make laws or mandates about gun ownership, and school leaders are advised to focus on pragmatic reforms, rather than politics.
“This is just like educating parents about nutrition or [dangers] of vaping,” said Johnson. “I spend a lot of my time and effort keeping students safe. It makes sense we extend that to the home.”