What is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in America? 

The startling truth is this: In 2020, firearm-related injuries surpassed automobile accidents to become the leading cause of death among persons 1-19 years of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

That finding, among others, prompted the New Jersey School Boards Association to convene a task force in January 2023, which researched the topic and released a special report, “Firearms Safety: Processes, Programs and Practices for Safety in School, Home and Community. “ The report focuses on strategies to keep children safe from firearms.

“We had a responsibility to study this issue and see if there were strategies and programs to prevent gun violence and protect our students from harm,” said Irene LeFebvre, who was NJSBA president when the task force was formed, and now serves as the Association’s immediate past president. 

In its work, the task force reviewed data and research on firearm deaths and injuries; the impact of children’s exposure to violence; effective strategies to protect children from accidental injury; safe gun storage, handling and use; firearm acquisition and licensing; and school- and community-based partnerships that address students’ mental and emotional health.

The report offers local boards of education and municipalities recommendations and suggested actions that reflect strategies endorsed by child welfare organizations, gun-owner groups, the medical community, experts in public health, education organizations and other advocates. NJSBA believes this report can be embraced by communities because it steers clear of the politics that often enters debates about gun violence and focuses on workable options to ensure firearm safety. 

The report urges boards to collaborate with parents, students and the community at large to promote firearm safety, prevent gun violence and address the physical and emotional toll that such violence has on our children.

One Local Board’s Action In August the Wayne Township Board of Education voted to direct its Technology, Safety and Security Committee to study the report and come up with recommendations on how to foster a safer environment for Wayne’s students. 

“I was thrilled to read this report,” said Catherine Kazan, a Wayne board member. “These are things we can actually do locally. I believe that if we teach young people about gun safety and they understand that guns should be stored safely and they also understand that they should never touch a weapon or point it at anyone, maybe it will save a life.” 

“I spoke with our local police officers, and they were excited about it and said they would love to be involved in teaching children gun safety,” Kazan added. 

Sample of Findings  Based on its research, the task force found that:

  • In 2020, firearm-related injuries surpassed automobile accidents to become the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, according to the CDC.
  • 3,597 children died by gunfire in 2021, according to provisional statistics from the CDC, reported in The New York Times.
  • During the same period, 1,078 children died by suicide, accounting for nearly 30% of child gun deaths, according to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety, a nationwide organization that promotes firearms safety, cited by The New York Times.
  • An estimated 4.6 million American children live in households with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm, reports a 2022 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Between 2015 and 2020, there were at least 2,070 unintentional shootings by children that resulted in 765 deaths and 1,366 nonfatal injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.
  • In 2020 alone, at least 125 children ages 5 and under shot themselves or someone else.

Focus of Recommendations The task force identified programs in place in schools and reviewed data, reports and literature in topic areas including the impact of gun violence on children and adolescents; practices to promote firearm safety, including safe firearm storage; violence prevention strategies; trauma and mental health; and resources available from nationwide organizations.

The group made an overarching recommendation: That boards of education review the report and determine those strategies that will best enhance safety in their communities. “While the desire to keep our children and staff safe is one shared by all boards of education, there is not a singular path to reaching this goal,” notes the report. 

The NJSBA Firearms Safety Task Force Report: Process, Programs and Practices for Safety in School, Home and Community can be accessed at www.njsba.org/Firearms-Safety-Report-2023.

Janet Bamford is NJSBA’s chief public affairs officer.