Somewhere in the U.S. today, a child will find a loaded gun in a home. They won’t have to look hard. It will be unlocked and stored in an easily accessible place. The child will pick up the firearm, and soon enough, it will go off exactly like it’s supposed to. The bullet will strike a friend, or a sibling, or the child who found the gun in the first place. Someone will be injured or killed. If it’s an average day in America, this scene will play out seven more times somewhere. It will repeat itself tomorrow.
Those eight children will be the casualties of so-called “family fire,” a term that describes shootings involving unsecured firearms in the home. This aspect of gun violence is the focus of a public education campaign launched Wednesday by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
With material targeting both people who do and do not own guns, the aim is to “End Family Fire” by promoting a dialogue about safe firearm storage habits and increasing awareness about the risks of having a gun in the household.
“We can all agree, eight children being unintentionally shot and injured or killed every day is simply unconscionable,” Brady co-president Kris Brown said in a statement. “Just like the term ‘designated driver’ changed perceptions about drinking and driving, the term ‘Family Fire’ will help create public awareness to change attitudes and actions around this important matter.”
In 1988, the Harvard School of Public Health launched the designated driver campaign with a substantial assist from TV networks and Hollywood figures. The message caught on, and just four years into the campaign, alcohol-related traffic fatalities had dropped by 25 percent.
A key part of the success of the campaign was that it discussed solutions without demonizing the underlying act, said Kyleanne Hunter, a Marine veteran and vice president of programs at Brady.
“‘Designated driver’ doesn’t say going out and drinking is bad,” Hunter said. “What it says is, don’t get behind the wheel of a car if you’re gonna do it. Have a designated driver.”
By focusing on a message of shared responsibility, End Family Fire hopes to “provide an opportunity for people to start a dialogue with individuals with whom they typically feel diametrically opposed,” Hunter said. She hopes the approach will defuse some of the tensions common in other areas of the gun debate.
The centerpiece of the campaign, produced in partnership with the Ad Council and the global ad firm Droga5, is a two-minute spot that imagines a conversation between a gun owner and his inquisitive young son, who appears intent on finding his father’s firearm. Shorter versions of the ad and other campaign materials will run online, in print and on broadcast TV, thanks to donations from outlets, the Brady Campaign said.
Millions of Americans face considerations like the ones raised in the video. Children are present in 13 million gun-owning households in the U.S., according to estimates published in a 2018 study. In approximately 2.7 million of those households, gun owners store their firearms loaded and unlocked, meaning there are an estimated 4.6 million kids living with guns they can get ahold of.
Surveys of gun owners suggest the security of their children is paramount. Two-thirds of all gun owners cite protection as a major reason for owning a firearm. Indeed, in some cases, this may be the reason they keep their guns loaded and easily accessible.
Some gun-owning parents may not fully understand the potential for unintentional harm in these situations. Surveys have shown that many children know the location of their parents’ firearm, even when their parents think they don’t. Some children have even handled the gun in their home without their parents’ knowledge.
In 2016, the latest year for which federal data is available, 3,000 children were unintentionally shot and 127 were killed in family fire incidents as a result of improperly stored guns. Another 1,100 children shot themselves to death in suicides, in many cases with unsecured firearms owned by their parents. Studies have shown that having a gun in the household significantly increases the risk of adolescent suicide.
Unsecured guns are also a huge factor in school shootings, which claim the lives of students and adults alike. A recent Washington Post review of school shootings perpetrated by minors since 1999 found that in 80 percent of those where the source of the weapon was identified, the guns were taken from the shooter’s home or the home of their relatives or friends.
In May, for example, a Texas teen took two guns from his father’s closet and shot up his school, killing 10 people. The tragedy led to renewed debate about child access prevention laws, which allow adults to be charged when children obtain their firearms.
“Somebody else’s negligence can directly impact your life.”
The first step toward ending family fire is to reach gun owners and encourage more responsible gun ownership, Hunter said.
A slide on the End Family Fire website says gun owners can “start by storing your gun in a secure and inaccessible location away from children and guests.” Another message urges people to store their firearms with a gun lock or in a safe, and to keep the guns separate from ammunition.
Brady is discussing partnering with a manufacturer of biometric gun safes, which let people get to their firearms in just seconds. The organization is also working to craft television tie-ins, in which characters would help them spread awareness about safe storage and the dangers of “friendly fire.”
Hunter acknowledged that a certain percentage of gun owners would simply never consider installing a safe or lockbox. “There are people who just fundamentally believe that they’re always under threat,” she said. “That if they’re not armed at all times, that they’re unprepared.”
The other aspect of the End Family Fire campaign is an effort to engage non-gun owners and people who may be considering purchasing a firearm. After all, these shootings don’t only affect the children of gun owners.
“Somebody else’s negligence can directly impact your life,” Hunter said.
In 2001, 13-year-old Joshua Adames went to hang out with a friend and never came home. His friend’s father was a police officer, and his son had gotten ahold of his service weapon. The magazine was removed from the pistol, but when the friend pointed it at Joshua and pulled the trigger, a chambered round fired into Joshua’s stomach, killing him.
Joshua’s uncle, Hector Adames, told HuffPost he joined the End Family Fire campaign in hopes of keeping other families from having to go through that pain.
“Had the friend not had access to the gun, my nephew would still be alive today,” Adames said.
It benefits everyone to have conversations about the importance of safe gun storage, Adames said. He pointed out that firearms are a popular target for burglars and thieves, and that locking them up can help keep guns off the street, where they might be used in crimes.
“The truth of the matter is, if you have an irresponsible gun owner in your neighborhood, your community’s not safe,” Adames said.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to clarify that a statistic about guns used in school shootings since 1999 referred solely to incidents in which the source of the weapon had been identified.