Eight-year-old Jahede Parker has brand new red sneakers and a gray camo coat to start his new school year at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis.
His twin brother Jacob picked out an almost identical coat Sunday, when the two joined more than a thousand other local elementary kids shopping at the free back-to-school fair sponsored by the St. Louis chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.
The brothers were connected to the one-day event at Temple Israel in Creve Coeur by their after-school program, Lift for Life Gym, one of several social service agencies that signed low-income kids up for the fair. By the time they left, they’d picked out new clothes from head-to-toe, chosen two books and collected a backpack full of school supplies.
Back To School Store Co-Chair Karen Silverman said her organization plans for this day all year, coordinating shopping trips on Black Friday and scheduling shopping times for groups of kids. This year's event has more than 600 volunteers and 1,300 elementary student shoppers. It's the 16th year the National Council of Jewish Women has held the fair.
Last stop for the Parker brothers was a resource room, where children reunited with their guardians and families could get information on meeting their health and dental needs.
Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice handed out gun locks at one of the tables in the resource room to anyone interested. Before noon Sunday the group had already handed out about 60.
Father Ronald Zaiger took three, saying his 5-year-old son had already found one of his guns once.
“I already know what could happen with somebody getting ahold of it. I’ve seen it one too many times. He’s starting to get curious,” Zaiger said.
Zaiger said he plans to keep the keys to the locks on his key chain so he’s sure his children can’t get hurt.
“It's not our position to say whether or not people have guns in their home,” explained Lise Bernstein, president of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. “What we say is if you have a gun in your home, please keep it locked and unloaded, because you obviously care very much for your children, and we want to make sure that we're giving you the information to keep them safe.
“It's just like locking up your medications, the child safety caps on medications, or putting your child in a car seat. Locking your guns is just a safe practice for people who have children in the house.”
Bernstein’s organization has given away more than 700 gun locks at community events since it began the program, called Lock It for Love, three years ago. This is the second year the program has handed out gun locks at the Back-to-School Store.
With children as young as 2 involved in accidental shootings, Bernstein said, the problem is a big one, but one that can be stopped.
“We know that 40 percent of guns in the home are kept unlocked and loaded,” she said, “and accidental shootings where children die from unsecured guns, those accidental shootings are 100 percent preventable.”
Bernstein and Barbara Finch, who co-chairs the gun-lock program, said they realize that families keep guns in their home for fear of their own safety. But they have to balance that concern with the safety of their children, Finch said, and understand how a gun lock can help.
“Nobody really says that they're not interested,” she said. “What they say is, 'I'm afraid. I'm scared, because we have so much violence in our neighborhood that I feel like I need to have a loaded gun close to me so that I can protect my family.' And that is a very real fear.
“Parents have to come to grips with how they're going to deal with it. Whether they're going to let the real or perceived fear outweigh the actual risk of having an unlocked loaded gun where their kids can get to it.”
Bernstein added, “Kids are curious, and they unfortunately see a lot of gun violence in the media or in the video games that they play. I think that sometimes they're desensitized to the fact that guns are real weapons that do real harm to people.
“If they see a gun, many children may think it's a toy, and they just instinctively reach out to pick it up. So what we say is, keep it out of reach of children, because kids are going to want to touch it and explore.”
And no matter what parents may think, Finch said, their kids are aware of a gun in the house – and the temptation it poses.
“Many parents have told us, I have a gun in the home, but my child doesn't know where it is,” she said. “Well, we're willing to bet that the child does know where it is. Because kids are nosy, and kids are curious, and kids snoop, and kids know a lot of things that their parents think they don't.”
Finch said that the risk from an unlocked gun isn’t just to others – it’s a risk to a child who finds a gun.
“Sixty percent of all gun deaths are a result of suicide,” she said, “and it has been proven that the suicidal impulse can be interrupted. The impulse to suicide sometimes only lasts just a few minutes, and if you can interrupt that, either with a gun lock or with something else, some diversion or distraction, that impulse frequently goes away, and never comes back.
“So we really hope that in addition to keeping young children safe from gun violence, that this locked gun will make a difference in the suicides that we experience in St. Louis city and county.”
The gun locks cost $5 each, Finch said. So far, the program has been funded with grants from the Deaconess Foundation, which pays for the locks themselves and printed material on how and why they should be part of an overall home safety program.
Finch said her organization also teaches families how to use the locks before they give them out.
“We don't just hand them a gun lock and say go home and use this,” she said. “We talk to the parents about the necessity for this, about how a gun in the home is far more likely to injure the people who live there than it is to be used to fend off an intruder.
“We ask them what kind of gun they have, whether they have a revolver or a semiautomatic. Then we have two disabled weapons there, and we show them exactly how to insert the cable lock and how to lock it up, and then we talk to them about what they're going to do with the key when they get home and lock it up. So it is an educational process, and we hope that the parents will go home and will use these locks to keep their kids safe.”
Even with guns being an issue that stirs strong emotions, Finch said the gun-lock giveaway program hasn’t drawn any opposition.
“I think even pro-gun groups want to keep kids safe,” she said. “This is a public health problem, and we're focused on children, so who would not want to keep kids safe from gun violence? We've had absolutely no push back from anybody, no organization.”
“We're not judgmental at all about gun ownership,” Bernstein added. “We understand that that's a right that people have.”
She said it’s hard to tell how effective the gun-lock program has been.
“We want to be very respectful of people's privacy,” she said, “so the only thing we ask of people is what their ZIP code is. We don't ask for their name or their address. We don't follow up with them, because we feel that the most important thing is that they take the gun lock home and use it.”