This week actor Vince Vaughn took a page out of NRA fearmonger-in-chief Wayne LaPierre's playbook, calling for more guns in U.S. schools to protect the nation's children from mass shootings. "Banning guns is like banning forks," Vaughn told British GQ.
Vaughn's timing was unfortunate. Today, June 2nd, is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and many of his associates in Hollywood have pledged to wear orange in solidarity with victims of gun violence. (The NRA, with customary class, has called the commemoration "pointless.")
Being a celebrity, Vaughn's opinions on keeping kids safe by getting more guns into more places made the national news, and ignited the Twittersphere. But there's another gun-related phenomenon affecting the nation's children that could also benefit from a celebrity spokesperson. By the numbers, it's not deranged mass shooters who pose the greatest threat to American children; with gun sales booming across the country, and the number of unsecured firearms in closets and glove compartments exploding, these days it's American kids who are shooting themselves, each other and their parents at an alarming rate.
In just the last week, a three-year old boy in South Carolina shot himself, a Virginia toddler shot and killed himself with one of his parents' guns, and a four-year-old shot and killed a man at a South Dakota gun range. The week before, a three-year-old boy in Utah shot his four-year-old brother, and another three-year-old boy, this time in Florida, shot his one-year-old sister in the face, in front of their preschool. Day after day, week after week, the list goes on. By a back of the envelope calculation, the death toll starts to look like a Sandy Hook every few weeks.
I should know; I've been tracking these shootings since the beginning of the year, after the story of a two-year-old who shot and killed his mother with her own gun inside an Idaho Walmart blew up in the national media. This has been part of my research for my satirical play, Bullets Over Preschool, premiering later this month. I'd say the title was tongue-in-cheek, except that it was inspired by the story of a four-year-old who shot up a daycare center with a 9mm he found in his father's truck.
I also wish it was tongue-in-cheek to say America's children are armed and dangerous, except it's not. It's true.
Nor is this an especially new state of affairs. American kids have been shooting themselves and each other for years now, but as the Second Amendment enthusiasts who crowd the comments sections will tell you ad nauseum, more U.S. children die in swimming pool accidents each year than by gunfire. The problem lies in discerning whether that data point is even accurate: after years of lobbying by the NRA and other gun rights groups, reliable federal numbers don't exist on how many toddler shooting deaths are even happening each year, as The Washington Post reported last fall.
So we find ourselves at an impasse. American toddlers are getting their hands on guns at an alarming rate, and the government's “hands are tied” to track the phenomenon. On top of that, few local or state governments seem to have the appetite to prosecute negligent parents or caretakers for leaving loaded guns lying around for their toddlers to find. Even activists in relatively liberal New York State are finding it an uphill battle to pass common-sense laws around safe gun storage.
The NRA's singing Eddie Eagle mascot, which recently got a digital upgrade, tells children that if they see a gun, they should "Stop! Don't touch. Run away. Tell a grown up." Given how the NRA has lobbied against gun safety legislation across the country, this feels pretty disingenuous. The message the group seems to really be sending to kids is: "Stop! Lock and load. Ready aim, open fire!"
In all seriousness, it's hard to say at this point what it will take to get a critical mass of Americans and their elected representatives to acknowledge that something's gone deeply wrong here, and to do something about it. Our toddlers are regularly shooting themselves, their friends and their family members. How many bloodbaths will we all have to watch on the news, or live through personally?
The longer we drag our heels debating this issue, the more kids will reach for the gun in their parent's glove compartment, with no singing eagle on the scene to warn them away.