HOLYOKE – Two months after a pre-schooler brought a gun to class, A grassroots firearms safety group offered tips to the community about securing guns to keep them away from curious children and suicidal teens.
The Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots movement with chapters in all 50 states, was launched to push for “public safety measures” to protect people from gun violence and to prevent child access to guns. On Wednesday members of the Western Massachusetts chapter gathered at Enlace de Familia to hold an open forum about keeping guns away from children.
The presentation attracted about a dozen residents, two police officers and several community leaders. While the organization does activism work about gun laws, the presentation called Be Smart is specifically designed to not be political, said Robin Neipp, a member of the group.
“We believe most gun owners want to be responsible gun owners,” said Barbara Stechenberg, a retired pediatrician who is a member of the group.
The organization has information about how to talk to children about guns, but members believe it is the adult’s responsibility to secure guns, not a curious child’s duty to stay away from one, she said.
Neipp, of Leydon, said her family hunts and she and her husband talked to their sons about gun safety. Still, her sons and other children were caught by another mother holding a gun when they were playing at a friends’ house years ago.
The community meeting was spurred by an incident that occurred on Dec. 6 when a 5-year-old took a loaded, semi-automatic handgun from his grandfather’s home, put it in his backpack and brought it to his pre-school class at E.N. White School.
No one was injured. A criminal complaint has been issued against the grandfather, who has a license for the .22 caliber Ruger. His name will not be released until he is officially charged in the incident at his arraignment in Holyoke District Court but police earlier said he faces charges of improper storage of a firearm and reckless endangerment of a child.
Stephen Zrike, the school superintendent and receiver, said City Councilor Rebecca Lisi told him about the organization days after the incident and he invited members to give a presentation to parents at E.N. White School. The group also handed out information and talked to parents about gun safety at the school’s Family Night.
E. N. Principal Jacqueline Glasheen also worked with the Holyoke Police Department to hold gun safety classes for students in the school, Zrike said.
Principals at two other schools have now asked for similar educational presentations so police are scheduling classes at those schools, Sgt. Joseph Garcia said.
“What I like about it is it is simple and straight-forward,” Zrike said. He added that he picked up helpful tips for his own young children while listening to the Be Smart presentation.
The Be Smart program offers five recommendations. It calls for gun owners to secure their guns with a cable lock, a lockbox and preferably in a gun safe. Most children know where their parent’s guns are so adults must make sure their children cannot access the guns, especially when they get older.
It also calls for parents to model responsible behavior around guns, share the information with other adults and ensure their firearms are not accessible to teens since an average of 600 students across the country commit suicide with a family member’s gun every year.
The recommendation that parents ask others about unsecured guns when they are dropping off their children to play at another person’s house just as they would talk about allergies or other safety issues, prompted the most discussion by people who were attending.
“I do not ever remember asking about guns in the house,” said Tere Danek, a mother of an adult son who taught in Holyoke schools for 33 years before retiring in June. “It is true there are people who have guns and they are not secured. This has opened my eyes.”
In addition it is also important to talk about guns with relatives, especially grandparents. Older people sometimes keep a gun under the bed or in a bedside drawer out of fear and it can be easy for a child to find it, Neipp said.
Danek asked if the organization is considering bringing the presentation to other schools.
Neipp said the group, which is made up of residents who live across Western Massachusetts, is happy to offer the Be Smart presentation to other groups and communities. The presentation itself lasts about 30 minutes but there is time set aside for follow-up questions and discussion.
After the child brought the gun to class, the Holyoke Police did special educational presentations for all the children at E.N. White School. Officers have now scheduled others after principals at two schools requested them, Sgt. Joseph Garcia said.
Moms Demand Action meets at the Holyoke Public Library and its next gathering is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 4. The meeting is open to anyone who wants to attend, Neipp said.