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Surprising Allies Address The Outsize Role Guns Play In Deaths Of Soldiers And Kids

Sammy Mack
Volunteers from the League of Women Voters in Broward County pick up 5,000 gun locks from the Miami VA hospital

It's mid-morning on a weekday at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Miami, and Gloria Lewis is squeezed inside her office. Lewis, a suicide prevention coordinator at the Miami VA, sits amidst a giant, shrink-wrapped pallet of boxes. 

Outside the door, a cluster of women in matching red polo shirts are arriving to visit Lewis. They're all volunteers from the League of Women Voters in Broward County and they are feet away from what they drove down to Miami to collect.

"We are looking at 5,000 gun locks that are taking up all of Gloria Lewis's office," whispers Barbara Markley, chair of the League's gun safety committee. She is the ringleader of this operation to retrieve the military-sized shipment of gun locks, which are seen as a way to deter firearm violence.

This unlikely collaboration is at the heart of the Lock It Up! campaign, which kicks off this month in Broward County, to distribute free gun locks and encourage people to safely store their firearms.

The VA and the League have come together on the initiative because of the outsize role guns play in the deaths of kids and soldiers. The US Department of Veteran Affairs reports that on average 20 veterans kill themselves every day, mostly by firearms. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gunshot wounds are the second most common cause of death among children.

"Everybody wants to prevent accidents and suicide," says Markley. "So locking up these guns can save a lot of lives."

The volunteers from the League will deliver these gun locks from the VA across Broward County to pediatricians, law enforcement and other volunteers who can distribute them for free, no questions asked.

Credit Sammy Mack / WLRN
Thousands of these gun locks will be distributed in Broward County.

The gun locks look like miniature bike locks. A cable threads through the barrel or magazine of a gun—blocking the trigger. It requires a key to unlock the firearm.

"It gives you a moment to pause and think," says Lewis.

The VA gives away the gun locks as part of a suicide prevention strategy. They come packaged with a crisis hotline number.

"In our tri-county area, one of every eight people is a veteran," says Lewis. "So doing these promotions sometimes is giving information to people that are related somehow to veterans."

Even though a bunch of Broward ladies in polo shirts and sensible shoes may not be obvious foot soldiers in the VA's cause, their missions are aligned.

Gun safety has long been a priority for Markley and the League. But after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the issue became even more urgent.

"It was just heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching. We'd all been working so hard to make a difference. We were just falling under," says Markley. "But then, as soon as I saw those kids rally, I really felt my heart soar."

Credit Sammy Mack / WLRN
Barbara Markley and Gloria Lewis stand with the military-sized shipment of gun locks in Lewis's office.

Then Markley read an article about a Montana pediatrician who was giving away free gun locks. She called the doctor and learned she was getting her supply from the VA. With a little more digging, Markley found Lewis's email and asked if she could get some gun locks.

"She wrote five words that were just awesome: 'How many do you need?'" says Markley.

Along with the locks, the League will also be delivering thousands of pamphlets about gun safety to libraries and other public places. They contain tips for teaching kids about avoiding firearms. And there's a list of sobering data points:

-8 children are unintentionally killed or hurt with guns every day.

-Half of teen suicides are committed with a gun from home.

Dr. Spencer Eth, chief of mental health at the Miami VA hospital, says there's no downside to distributing gun locks. "There's no harm that can be caused, and rarely do we have an intervention where there's only good that can come of it," he says.

He's had patients tell him the locks work.

"Many of them will tell me that if they get very angry or in a situation that might provoke violence, if there's a gun that they can reach for and use, they may in sudden excitement actually do so. But if the gun is locked away and not readily available, that extra step may save a life," says Eth.

Eth and Lewis agree there's another reason the gun lock program works.

"We're not questioning the Second Amendment," says Lewis. "We just want to provide an added layer of safety."

You can learn more about where to get the free gun locks by contacting the League of Women Voters of Broward County: gunsafety@lwvbroward.org or (954)735-1311.