By Jennifer Fernandez and Anne Blythe
Last month, a Thomasville teenager died after being shot in the head by another teen with a stolen weapon.
After the deadly shooting, family members of 15-year-old Jeremy Redwine Jr. urged people to keep track of and properly store their firearms.
“If you own a gun, make sure to keep up with them. Keep them locked up when there’s children around,” William Redwine, Jeremy Redwine’s uncle, told WFMY in Greensboro. He pointed out that they’re gun owners and tried to teach their youngsters — including the victim — firearm safety.
“And if any children out there know that a fellow student has a firearm that shouldn’t have it, let somebody know. That could have avoided this tragedy.”
The other teen has been charged with second-degree murder and possession of a stolen weapon.
Firearms are now the leading cause of injury-related death — homicides and suicides — for the state’s youth, according to the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force. Add that to a rise in firearm-related juvenile crime, and state officials decided they had to find a way to focus on keeping weapons out of the hands of children.
“Those two factors were what kind of pushed us to see what we could do to try to limit access, especially to young people, but anybody that’s not supposed to have firearms,” said William Lassiter, deputy secretary for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention at the Department of Public Safety.
This week, the state launched the inaugural NC S.A.F.E. initiative to urge people to “secure all firearms effectively.”
Gov. Roy Cooper, whose legislative priorities have been thwarted by supermajorities in the legislature, has been using the bully pulpit more in recent months to tout his policy goals. He met with reporters on Monday to announce the initiative.
“We know that gun violence is increasing at an alarming rate — not just in North Carolina, but across the country,” Cooper told media gathered for the briefing at the Executive Mansion. “It stands to reason, because there are more guns in North Carolina than ever before.”
“Sales of guns skyrocketed since the pandemic,” Cooper added. “With all of these available guns, the chances are greater than ever that guns are being stolen and being misused, both accidentally and intentionally.”
Public health officials have noted that deaths from gun violence among youth have surpassed deaths from car accidents, and Cooper echoed that grim statistic. North Carolina saw an increase of 120.8 percent in firearm-related death rates among youth from 2019 through 2021, the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force reported earlier this year.
From 2011 through 2020, 525 North Carolina children aged 17 and younger died from firearm injuries.
In 2021 alone, the number of child deaths due to firearms was 121.
“Gun violence is not only a crime problem, it’s a public health problem,” Cooper said.
Over the past nine months, Cooper said he has held meetings with law enforcement officers, researchers, doctors, mayors, community activists and others.
“They are all working so hard to stop this senseless violence, while also pleading for help,” he said.
In March, Cooper established the North Carolina Office of Violence Prevention through an executive order.
Now Cooper is making an appeal to gun owners across the state: Store your weapons safely to help save lives.
“For those of us who own guns, it’s our responsibility to keep them safe and out of the wrong hands,” Cooper said. “Safe storage is an essential part of responsible gun ownership, and this initiative will encourage North Carolinians to safely secure their firearms in their homes and vehicles.”
Over the coming week, representatives from the state Department of Public Safety will travel to baseball games and other events across North Carolina to distribute 25,000 cable gun locks and share other materials to promote safer storage.
A long road
A bill that would have created a program and received funding failed to gain enough traction last year in the General Assembly.
Lassiter said after that, state officials asked Cooper for help finding money to launch something this year.
The campaign is funded by state money that wasn’t spent in the previous budget year.
The safe storage program topped the Child Fatality Task Force’s legislative agenda this year.
Lawmakers this year did approve a two-year firearm safe storage education initiative as part of a new law that also ended the pistol permitting requirement and expanded the ability to carry a concealed weapon in some situations. However, no funding for the education initiative was included in Senate Bill 41, which became law in late March after lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto.
North Carolina is applying for federal funding connected to legislation passed last year that provides support to states for such programs, Lassiter said. He said that funding should get NC S.A.F.E. through the coming year.
About 42 percent of N.C. households have at least one firearm in them, according to a 2021 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of those, 53 percent said on the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey that they have loaded weapons that are not locked.
“Of those, we found that many of those had young children in those households,” Lassiter said.
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The goal is to try to change that behavior and reduce by at least 10 percent the number of households with firearms that are both loaded and unlocked, he said.
The NC S.A.F.E. campaign includes social media ads and advertising on city buses, including ads launching this week for transit systems in Greensboro and Durham with other cities to follow.
Lassiter said they hope to get the message out to gun owners that this is a part of responsible gun ownership. The firearm safety campaign has nothing to do with advocacy on gun regulations.
“Yes, you have a right to bear arms in this country,” Lassiter said. “But with that right comes an awesome responsibility to keep those guns out of the hands of criminals and young people that are impulsive and will use those guns in an improper way.”
One study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2019 estimated that a “modest increase” in the number of homes that store firearms safely could prevent up to 32 percent of youth suicides.
“It’s been shown if you can delay the time the person has access to that firearm by 15 minutes, a lot of times they will rethink that behavior,” Lassiter said.
Accessing firearms has not been too difficult for North Carolina’s youth.
The 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed 30 percent of the state’s high school students said it would take them less than an hour to get and be ready to fire a loaded gun without a parent or other adult’s permission.
More than half of weapons that kids get come from home, Lassiter said. The rest are stolen or left unattended, he said. In some cases, gangs are using gun thefts as an initiation, he said.
Lassiter said gang members spread the myth that consequences are less for young kids found with a weapon.
“This is not a video game. You shoot somebody, they don’t come back alive,” he said. “Also, just carrying a weapon ups the consequences for you in terms of accountability. It just changes the whole dynamic of the situation.”
He said that in the second year of NC S.A.F.E., they will focus on expanding a program called Educating Kids about Gun Violence. EKG, which was piloted in 13 school districts, is designed to teach children about gun and gang violence and help them learn to make healthy decisions.
‘Lock it up. Keep it safe.’
State officials are working on putting together information to share with parents about how to talk to someone who may have guns in their home.
North Carolinians Against Gun Violence offers on its website examples for how families can approach such conversations.
“Wherever your child is going for a playdate, always ask, ‘Are there guns in your home and are they stored safely?’ That simple question can make a huge difference,” said Becky Ceartas, executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit.
Firearm safety checklist
- Have a method for effectively locking firearms.
- Lock it up after every use.
- Unload it when it’s not in use.
- Store ammunition in a separate location when possible.
- Keep the lock combination or location of a key secret from children and others who should not access firearms.
- Lock firearms regardless of whether they’re at home or in a vehicle.
Source: NC S.A.F.E.
Pediatricians are also being encouraged to talk with patients about firearm safety just like they do other child safety issues, such as using child seats in vehicles.
School resource officers could share information at parent-teacher association meetings, Lassiter said.
One pushback to locking up weapons is the time it might take to access that firearm if someone is breaking in, for example, Ceartas said. But she pointed out that modern locks, especially those using biometric technology, allow swift access.
Lassiter also stressed the importance of one moment in accessing a firearm.
“It only takes a moment for a kid to find a gun, for a kid to harm themselves with a gun. Or,” Lassiter said, “it just takes you a moment to lock up that gun.”