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Children learn a deadly truth about guns

More than a dozen Christmases have passed since 5-year-old Eric Manuel Payne found a .25-caliber handgun under his great-grandmother's pillow and accidentally shot himself in the head.

Like many other residents in her Ybor City neighborhood, Lillie Mae Stokes-Jackson had been the victim of a crime and had bought the gun to protect herself. She never dreamed her great-grandson would find it.

But like many little boys, Eric was fascinated by guns.

Tampa police Maj. George McNamara, who responded to the call at the mint-green ranch house that late December afternoon, knew the weapon was an attraction the child couldn't resist.

Shortly after Eric died, McNamara joined forces with More Health Inc., a nonprofit organization that since 1989 had been providing health and injury prevention education free of charge to children and families.

More Health's repertoire already included lessons in nutrition, bicycle safety and poison prevention. With help from local law enforcement and members of the medical community, More Health began teaching gun safety to every third-grader in Pinellas and Hillsborough County public schools.

A decade later, the group's mantra remains the same: A gun is a machine, and a machine does a job. This machine's job is to shoot bullets. A bullet will not stop until it hits something — or someone.

McNamara thinks the message is even more critical now than it was in 1995, when Eric died, especially with kids once again out of school for Christmas break.

"I hear so many stories," he said last week. "Dad puts his gun in his sock drawer. Mom's boyfriend hides a gun under the couch. We need to make sure our kids are safe, whether it's our child or a neighbor's child."

• • •

On a recent Thursday, More Health teacher Maureen Burke brought her traveling firearm safety exhibit to Sandy Lane Elementary School in Clearwater. Under the steady gaze of 23 third-graders, she set up the first in a series of daylong presentations featuring a light box, a pile of X-rays, and a sealed plexiglass case filled with an assortment of disemboweled handguns.

She begins by asking eight students to stand.

"This is the number of children (under 19) who will die today from a firearm injury," she says. "Eight more will die tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day."

She inserts one of the X-rays into the light box and flips the switch to reveal a human spine with a walnut-sized burst of white, dead center.

"If a bullet were to hit your spine, it could cut the nerves," she says. "Your brain could no longer send a message to your legs to move. You could be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life."

Next comes an X-ray of a human skull with a sunburst-like area deep inside. "This time the bullet broke apart into fragments," Burke says. "The skull is very hard, but a bullet is very powerful. A bullet could cause brain damage, or what else?" she asks.

A child near the back of the room answers quietly: "It could kill you."

In addition to children who lose their lives, about 880 are treated in emergency rooms for injuries due to accidental shootings from handguns, shotguns and rifles, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Nearly all unintentional childhood shooting deaths occur in or near the home. Most involve guns that have been kept loaded and left in places where children can find them.

Parents who think they have nothing to worry about because they don't keep guns in their homes need to think twice, said Dr. Dan Riggs, a pediatric care physician who sees as many as five unintentional gun-related injuries come through the emergency rooms each year at Tampa General and St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

That's one of the things parents need to talk to other parents about, he said.

"Do you really know if the family where your child is going to spend the night or have a birthday party keeps weapons in the home? More important, do you know how they keep them?"

Riggs, who assisted in launching More Health's firearm safety program, said a crucial part of the lesson is informing parents, through their children, that guns should be emptied of bullets, locked and stored in a safe.

"A gun is a very unforgiving machine," Riggs said. "It's not like cutting yourself with a knife. There's no room for error."

• • •

Every time that Burke talks to a group of third-graders, she tells them the story of Sean and Louis, two Largo Middle School students who decided to skip classes on a rainy day in September 2003.

The boys went to Louis' house, where his dad kept a gun hidden under the couch. Louis knew it was there and decided to show it to Sean.

Louis didn't think the gun was loaded. He pulled the trigger and nothing happened. But Sean felt uncomfortable and left the room.

Louis followed him and pulled the trigger again.

"A bullet hit Sean right here," Burke says, pointing to her forehead. "The bullet killed him."

The details of the day 14-year-old Louis Mevec shot 12-year-old Sean Caroline are seared into Burke's brain. She has heard the story countless times from her husband, Chris Burke, who, as an officer with the Largo Police Department, was dispatched to Louis' house the day of the shooting.

"I'd seen plenty of homicides, but that was the first child homicide," Chris Burke recalled last week. "Sean was a good kid with good grades. It was his first time skipping school. He had a lot of potential."

Louis Mevec was charged with manslaughter and sent to a boys village for months. He later moved out of state. Louis' father, who also is named Louis Mevec, was convicted of culpable negligence and sentenced to almost three years in prison.

Sean's story is an example of why third-graders aren't too young to hear about gun safety, Burke said. "It's the age when they've been exposed to guns on TV and in video games," he said. "They're curious about what a gun is and what it does. They're old enough to know, 'This is something I want to touch.' "

• • •

Back at Sandy Lane, Maureen Burke calls a child up to examine the guns in the plexiglass case. "Take a close look," she says. "Which gun isn't real?"

The child looks, and looks some more. "It's kind of hard to tell," Burke says. "Even if we don't know if a gun is real, how should we treat it?"

The child recites: "We should treat it as if it was real."

That's the crux of More Health's firearm safety initiative, said director Karen Pesce — making sure that children don't take any chances with guns, even if they think they're make-believe. All too often, they're the real thing.

"Kids tell us all kinds of things about the violence in their neighborhoods, about the gunfire they hear," Pesce said. "Many of them tell us their parents have guns in their homes."

Yet the More Health lesson is not anti-gun. It's "strictly about keeping kids safe."

Because the lesson was birthed with help from doctors like Riggs and police officers like McNamara and Chris Burke, it's grounded in reality, said Pesce, who is a registered nurse. Trained teachers like Ms. Burke set the lesson in language kids understand.

Everyone involved cringes when children ooh and ahh over the guns in the case, the way the Sandy Lane kids did. The students were especially impressed with an assault rifle with a Hello Kitty sticker affixed to the stock.

The seductive power of firearms makes gun safety an uphill battle, Chris Burke said. He wants to believe that initiatives like More Health's are helping.

"That's the hard part about this," Burke said. "You don't know how many lives you're saving. You only know how many you lose."

fast facts

By the numbers

• Each year, 67 children 14 and younger die of an unintentional gun shooting in the United States.

• About 880 children are treated in emergency rooms annually for injuries due to accidental shootings from handguns, shotguns and rifles.

• In 2005, there were more than 7,000 injuries to children involving BB guns and pellet guns.

• About one-third of families with children — representing more than 22-million children — keep at least one gun in the home.

Safety checklist

• Store firearms — including BB or pellet guns — unloaded and locked up, out of reach of children. Keep ammunition locked in a separate location.

• Use a safety device such as a gun lock, a lock box or a gun safe for every gun kept in the home. Keep gun storage keys and lock combinations hidden in a separate location.

• Talk to children about the dangers of guns. Teach them never to touch or play with guns and instruct them to tell an adult if they find a gun.

Source: National Safe Kids Campaign

About More Health

Go to or call (813) 287-5032.

Children learn a deadly truth about guns 12/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 11:43am]
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