DETROIT — The deadly shooting at Oxford High School placed a spotlight on a simple measure experts say could stop children from getting access to a weapon: locking them up.

That could have saved at least 20 lives in Michigan over the past 18 months, the state’s advocate for children said.

“Child deaths due to unsecure firearms are preventable,” said Suzanna Shkreli, director of the Michigan Office of Children’s Ombudsman, which generated a special report about children’s deadly encounters with firearms last year after noticing a spike in fatal shootings involving unsecured guns. “Ensuring your firearms are secure and inaccessible to kids is a simple and reasonable step in protecting your children.”

In May, ombudsman investigators took a comprehensive look at reports they had received of children killed by guns left unlocked and easy to access. They were focused on a case involving a Wayne County child who was killed by an unsecured gun on Oct. 30, 2020.

That night, a girl was found fatally shot inside a Detroit home on the city’s west side; two other children were present during the incident but no adults were, according to police.

“If we learn anything from this, we hope it is if you know you have children, babies, in the home put your weapon up, lock it away,” Detroit Police Capt. Lashanna Potts said at the time. “And have adults present.”

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Ombudsman investigators found 10 other children had been killed by improperly stored guns between June 2020 and April 2021. Five were shot while playing, four were teens who died by suicide and one involved a youth who was shot in public by an unknown person.

The ombudsman has received additional reports since then, bringing the total to 20 children in about 18 months, Shkreli said.

But it’s hard to get a full picture of the role unsecured guns play in childhood mortality in Michigan. The ombudsman’s count of 20 children killed in 18 months is incomplete, as the office only reviews deaths of children involved in the child welfare system, such as children who live in foster homes, so its understanding of unsecured guns’ role in child deaths is limited.

While state and federal health agencies track firearm-related deaths, they do not track how the involved guns were acquired by shooters.

Research indicates improper storage is common in households with both children and firearms, said Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency medicine physician and director of the University of Michigan’s Injury Prevention Center.

He pointed to a study published in 2000 in the American Journal of Public Health, which found American parents do not consistently lock guns. Researchers reviewed results of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey from 1994 and 2000 and found many children have access to guns in their homes.

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Specifically, they found:

— 35% of the homes with children younger than 18 years reported having at least one firearm.

— In those homes, 43% had at least one unlocked firearm. Firearms were unlocked and loaded in 9%. They were unlocked, unloaded but stored with ammunition in 4%.

— In those homes, 39% kept firearms locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition.

As an emergency medicine doctor, Carter became interested in preventing violence. Preventing children from getting their hands on a weapon is a key strategy, he said, especially in high-stress times or when a child is experiencing depression.

“If you move further upstream to the things we can do before the event, I think some of those things are even more promising,” said Carter, such as connecting at-risk children with behavioral intervention programs. “They prevent us from getting to the point where something like (a shooting or a suicide) happens. Locked storage is certainly one of those. You prevent a kid who may be experiencing a crisis from getting access to a gun.”

Carter said gun violence is a leading cause of death among American children and teens. Safely storing guns is key to preventing further deaths.

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Steve Dulan, vice chair of the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners, said gun owners are increasingly using gun safes at home, since safes are cheap and readily available. He compares safes to other everyday safety measures, like childproofed cutlery drawers.

Dulan doesn’t support laws that would require specific storage techniques, though, contending they wouldn’t actually lead to more people locking up guns.

“Locking is a good idea,” he said. “We’re just not in favor of legislating it.”

Dulan also contended it’s disingenuous to conflate deadly shootings among teenagers with children who use a gun to accidentally hurt themselves or someone else.

In 2020, 84 Michigan children and teens up to 18 years old were killed by a firearm, according to statistics provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Between 2010 and 2020, 799 Michigan children and teens in that age group were killed in gun-related incidents, the statistics show.

The department does not track whether the guns used in those cases were locked before the shooting or how the shooter accessed the weapon.

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While homicides and suicides represent the overwhelming majority of gun-related deaths of children and teens in Michigan and nationwide, based on Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Centers for Disease Control data, unintentional shootings among children happen.

A Detroit 2-year-old was hospitalized after he found an unsecured gun at his home, The News reported in December. The incident followed a string of Metro Detroit children unintentionally shooting themselves with unsecured guns last year.

Those children included a 4-year-old girl in Detroit, a 5-year-old boy in Detroit and a 3-year-old boy from Roseville.

Unintentional child shootings happen throughout the state. A child unintentionally shot and killed a 5-year-old in Kalkaska County in August, 9&10 News reported. A 4-year-old died after he was unintentionally shot with a pellet gun in Ottawa County in May, Wood-TV reported.

“We need, as a society writ large, to focus on this and find evidence-based ways we can prevent these across the spectrum, school shootings, suicides, homicides, unintentional firearm injuries,” UM’s Carter said. “What can we do writ large that we know works?”

School shootings also represent a small portion of shootings, but they are “horrific events that often involve more than one person” and often are carried out with guns that were unlocked, Carter said.

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In 2019, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center released an analysis of 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred at American K-12 schools from 2008-17. Their analysis included incidents in which current or recent students purposefully used a weapon to hurt or kill at least one other student and/or school employee at school in planned attacks.

In almost half of the shootings, the Secret Service found the gun used “was either readily accessible, or it was not secured in a meaningful way,” and 76% of attackers used weapons they found at home or a relative’s home.

It’s unclear whether 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, the accused Oxford High School shooter, had open access to the weapon authorities say he used to kill four classmates and wound six others and a teacher on Nov. 30.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said the gun had been stored at his home in an unlocked drawer. Attorneys representing his parents, who also face charges related to the shooting, say the gun had been locked away.

In their review of child shooting deaths, Ombudsman investigators recommended the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services create a pamphlet for child welfare workers to distribute to parents.

A link to the resulting firearm safety guide is available online, department of health spokesman Bob Wheaton said. The guide includes a list of police departments, including some in Metro Detroit, that distribute free firearm safety kits or locks.

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The Wayne County Sheriff’s Department gives away gun locks for free at its headquarters on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

The locks are durable and easy to use, Sheriff Raphael Washington said. A flexible steel cord locks the cylinder open and prevents the gun to be used. Each lock can be opened with a key.

The Macomb County Sheriff’s Department has free gun locks available at its records office, 43565 Elizabeth Road in Mount Clemens, Sgt. Renee Yax said. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department also gives away gun locks.

“We’ve taken all the excuses out of being able to have a gun and store it properly,” Wayne County’s Washington said.