Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN, FNASN, FAAN, a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey, and an adjunct faculty member at Rutgers University School of Nursing in Newark, knows firsthand the impact that gun violence can have on families.
In 1949, her father, who was 12 at the time, survived a mass shooting in New Jersey that took the lives of thirteen people including his mother, father, and grandmother. He survived because his mother hid him in a closet.
Fast forward to February 14, 2018. Cogan’s niece, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, texted her mother as she hid in a closet with her teacher and 17 classmates as a shooter roamed the halls of the school. While Cogan’s niece survived the horrific mass shooting, fourteen students and three teachers died that day.
In the days after the Parkland shooting, Cogan promised her sister and niece that she would use her job as a school nurse to promote gun safety.
Avoiding gun control rhetoric
Cogan chooses her words carefully when she talks about gun violence. She believes that to successfully implement change, we need to reframe the conversation and discuss gun safety, rather than gun control; she never delves into the politics of guns or gun ownership.
“The term ‘gun control’ instantly creates polarization and leaves little room for finding common ground,” said Cogan. “But when we talk about gun safety measures — not controlling guns, but keeping our kids safe — that’s a shared value we can all agree on.”
Gun violence, said Cogan, is a public health emergency, and she believes nurses can play an important role in talking to their patients and families about how to properly store guns. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, firearms are now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States.
An estimated 4.6 million kids live in homes with unlocked, loaded guns. “Studies show that kids who harm themselves or others with guns often use weapons found at home,” said Cogan.
Safe gun storage
As healthcare educators and patient advocates, Cogan said that nurses are in a good position to talk to their patients about safe gun storage. Currently, she is working on a research study that will teach nurses how to have these important conversations with patients. Cogan also will speak on this topic at the National Association of School Nurses’ 2023 conference, to be held June 30-July 3 in Orlando, Florida.
To help nurses have these conversations, Cogan recommends the Be SMART campaign, launched by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. The campaign raises awareness about secure gun storage, illustrating how keeping guns locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition can save children’s lives.
“School nurses can talk about gun safety at back-to-school nights, and many pediatricians and nurses are making this conversation part of well-child visits,” said Cogan. “You can even obtain gun locks from local police departments and make them available to interested families.”
Encouraging nurses to become safety advocates
Liz Boldon, MSN, RN, has worked as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, since 2002. In 2020, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and, in 2023, she was elected to the Minnesota Senate and serves as Assistant Majority Leader. She still works as a nurse when the senate isn’t in session.
As a longtime volunteer and former co-lead of the Rochester chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, gun safety is a topic that Boldon feels passionate about.
“As a nurse, I’ve cared for the victims of gun violence and have seen the damage and destruction it leaves in its wake,” she said. “As a mom of three, I want to ensure that all of our children are safe when they go to school, or a friend’s home, or in any public space.”
Since education and prevention are core components of a nurse’s job, Boldon said having conversations with patients on gun safety makes sense.
“We already ask and counsel about a lot of safety measures such as seatbelts, having a smoke detector, and wearing a helmet when riding a bike,” Boldon said. “It’s just as critical to talk to families about safely storing firearms.”
Boldon notes that families who don’t own firearms may not have considered the risk of accidental shootings when their child visits another home for a playdate, so it’s important for parents to feel comfortable asking those questions.
“If your child has food allergies and goes on a playdate, you’re going to talk to the other parent about your child’s allergies and how a reaction presents itself,” Boldon said. “Parents can also inquire whether another family has guns in the house and if they’re stored securely.”
Sunny G. Hallowell, PhD, APRN, PPCNP-BC, a pediatric nurse practitioner and associate professor at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, still remembers when her five-year-old son came home from his first day of kindergarten and asked if she wanted to know his school hiding place.
He explained that his school had conducted a shelter-in-place drill, a practice schools use to prepare for emergency events such as mass shootings.
“I was heartbroken but decided right then to take my clinical expertise and advocacy skills as a pediatric nurse practitioner, parent, community member, and researcher to better understand our reaction to gun violence,” Hallowell said. “As a healthcare educator, I take seriously my role to instill the assessment, decision making, and advocacy skills necessary for future registered nurses to gauge safety, mental health, and the risk of gun violence in all settings where they practice.”
Along with Cogan and several other colleagues, Hallowell published research entitled, “School Nurses Share Their Voices, Trauma, and Solutions by Sounding the Alarm on Gun Violence” in Current Trauma Reports to help nurses understand how they could address gun violence and empower nurses to lead change.
“Nurses can use their clinical skills to assess and document their patients’ understanding of gun safety,” Hallowell said. “In addition, they can lead advocacy efforts in their communities and settings where they practice.”
To learn more about how to talk to patients about gun storage and safety, The BulletPoints Project offers nurses and other healthcare professionals the tools they need to have a rational, non-political conversation with patients regarding gun safety and storage.
Project Child Safe, a firearms safety education program, also offers educational resources and gun locks.
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