Here’s the conversation we should be having about student safety


So far, Utah has avoided a mass casualty event in schools, but that does not mean students are safe from gun violence.

According to Wikipedia, Utah has “only” suffered five mass shooting events in recent history. Three of these resulted in the death or injury of school-age children, including the 2007 Trolley Square shooting, the 2017 Rackley family murder in Sandy, and the 2020 Haynie family murder in Grantsville. Wikipedia’s list is clearly incomplete though — it’s missing the 2014 Boren family murder in Spanish Fork and the recent 2023 Haight family murder in Enoch. Among others. School-aged children died from gun violence in each of these family annihilations.

These murders are counted as homicide deaths, yet the most common gun deaths in Utah — 364 of 450 in 2021 — were suicides. Gun violence is the number one killer of Utah children and teens. This is not surprising, given our teen mental health crisis, and the fact that millions of children across the U.S. live in homes with unsecured loaded weapons, which “substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death,” according to a 2018 Journal of Urban Health report.

It’s high time our elected officials treated the gun violence issue with the seriousness it demands. While expensive weapons detection systems may be appropriate in high schools at the moment, they’re not actually long-term solutions to the crisis we currently face — Utah communities awash in guns and the consequent problem of gun violence endangering our children at home and in the community. We can reduce danger through deliberate mitigation — we’ve done it before.

In 1983, Utah experienced devastating flooding and a river running down State Street as a result of historic snowpack. When the floods abated, we did not just go “back to normal,” at least not exactly. According to the Utah Department of Emergency Management, after the floods of 1983, “New debris basins were built, stormwater systems improved, river and watersheds were restored, and at-risk structures were flood-proofed.” We were much better prepared for record-setting snowpack 40 years later, so the floods of 2023 were minimal by comparison. Perfectly timed snowmelt helped, but without years of extensive preparation, flooding this year would have been much, much worse.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and we put that principle into practice after the floods of 1983. Given the devastating costs of gun violence we must do better. According to a 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation report, the “U.S. is the only country among its peers in which guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens.” That tells me we can do better.

The NRA and affiliated Utah Shooting Sports Council, led by Clark Aposhian, knows that safe storage of weapons is essential — especially when children are in the home. A recent ATF study found that many guns used in crimes were purchased legally, then “lost” through theft. We also know that in more than 80% of school shootings the guns used are stolen from home.

Utahns know what works and we want it. According to a 2022 Deseret News survey of Utahns in the wake of more mass shootings than we can count, we overwhelmingly support universal background checks, red flag laws, raising the age limit to purchase guns, and banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Safe storage laws, or “access prevention” laws are also essential to reduce suicide, negligent “accidental” shootings, and gun theft.

As we approach the special election for Congressional District 2 this fall, and as candidates announce their intent to run for the state Legislature in 2024, ask them specifically if they support these common sense, life-saving, constitutional gun safety regulations. If they don’t, find someone else to support, get involved in local groups like the Utah chapters of March For Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, the Utah Gun Violence Prevention Center, and consider supporting the Brady Center, the Giffords Law Center, and EveryTown for Gun Safety.

Also ask your current state elected officials to sponsor these laws in the 2024 legislative session. If they only want to fund short term solutions, that’s just sand-bagging our schools to protect them when the surrounding community is being flooded. It’s not enough! Elected officials owe it to us to think long term now and take action that will decrease the destruction caused by guns in the wrong hands — just like Utah did after the 1983 floods.

Deborah Gatrell is a veteran and a social studies teacher in Granite School District.

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