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VOL. 113 | NO. 107 | Friday, May 28, 1999

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By STACEY PETSCHAUER Safety on Local programs aim to reduce youth violence against others and themselves By STACEY PETSCHAUER The Daily News Recent school shootings have placed youth violence in the nations spotlight, but assaults by children and teens even against themselves is not a new phenomenon. Since 1970, the youth suicide rate has tripled, making suicide the second leading cause of death among teens ages 15-19, and the third leading cause of death for young people under the age of 25, according to the Jason Foundation Inc., an organization formed to educate parents, teachers and others about suicide prevention. "I think its important to note. Now weve had 11 school shootings. Out of those 11 school shootings, in eight instances, the teens have been identified as suicidal," said A. Clark Flatt, president and chief executive officer of the Jason Foundation and father of Jason Flatt, who died by suicide in 1997. Flatt believes there is a strong correlation between the two types of violence. "(Suicide) fits right in with the violence. It comes from that," he said. Teen suicide, along with other types of youth violence, often is an impulsive event triggered by a specific situation, such as an argument with friends or family or a break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, he said. A program is being implemented statewide that is designed to make access to guns more difficult for young people troubled by such situations. The program, which involves the distribution of "trigger locks," key locks that fit around gun triggers, is about to kick off in Shelby County. The trigger lock program was begun by Mayor Hank Thompson of Hendersonville, Tenn., hometown of the Flatts and a site that has seen more than its share of teen suicide and youth shootings in recent years. "Four years ago, in an eight-month period, we had two teenage suicides and two middle school accidental shootings," Thompson said. "It just devastated this community." To address the situation, Thompson and youth representatives from area schools devised a plan to buy and distribute trigger locks free of charge to local households. The locks are designed to make gun use next to impossible by someone who does not have a key to the device. "A properly used trigger lock makes your home basically the same as a household without a weapon," Flatt said. A gun enthusiast himself, Thompson said he has no problem with citizens owning guns, as long as they are stored and used properly. "You have to respect a gun and you have to know how to use it safely," he said. "So, Im not against anybody having a gun, but I do think trigger locks are something that will help. "If you look at some of these shootings in the schools, in about nine out of 10 of the cases, if their parents or grandparents had trigger locks on the weapons, the kids couldnt have gotten to a gun." So far, Thompson and his team have distributed about 1,000 trigger locks, all bought with money raised by the youth or contributed by businesses, community organizations and individual donors. After seeing the success of the program in his city, Thompson decided to spread the word. As president of the Greater Nashville Region Council, he approached the 50 or more mayors and nine county executives that make up that organization and encouraged them to start trigger lock programs of their own. Next, he moved on to the Tennessee Municipal League and challenged 356 Tennessee mayors to give away 100 trigger locks by July 1. Included among those mayors was Collierville Mayor Herman W. Cox Jr., who accepted the challenge. Collierville will distribute trigger locks to the towns residents from 8 a.m. to noon June 12 at the Collierville Police Department, 156 N. Rowlett St. One trigger lock will be given to each household, and citizens who attend the program will be offered a short talk on gun safety in the home and a demonstration of how to operate the trigger lock, said Lt. Mike Albonetti, officer in charge of training and public relations for the department. Colliervilles Crimestoppers organization purchased 100 locks for the program, and the town is encouraging local businesses to make donations so more locks will be available. "Its a great idea," Albonetti said. "Judging from the response Im getting over the telephone, people calling in inquiring about the program, I think were going to give 100 of them away really quick. "We know that people own more than one gun. But, were hoping that if we give them one of these things and they see how well it works, theyll take the initiative to go out to a gun store if they have other guns and purchase more." The locks cost about $15 each in stores, he said. The trigger locks are universal, meaning they will work with handguns, rifles, shotguns and other types of guns. The lock fits around the trigger guard of the weapon, covering it completely and locking into place. "Its a ratcheting lock mechanism that gets tighter as you mess with it," Albonetti said. "You cannot put your finger in the trigger. You cant force the trigger of the weapon to be pulled." The lock takes just a few seconds to install and even less time to remove, he said. "You take your gun, hold it up on its side and turn the key in the lock. It just falls apart right there. Its very quick to get off," he said. If any locks are left over on June 12, Albonetti said the program will continue on the June 19. But, he doesnt expect any leftovers. "We think its going to be a great success," he said. "Tennessee ranks 19th in the nation in teen suicide. Thats terrible. Thats an honor that we dont really need or want, so this is a big deal to us." The city of Germantown also is working on a program through which trigger locks could be distributed to residents, said Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy. The citys Public Safety Education Commission, composed of citizens who work to address a range of safety issues, is working to put together a program that will address gun safety. "Our interest is in the issue of access by children, especially young children," Goldsworthy said. Thompson said he has talked to other mayors in the Memphis area as well, and more trigger lock distribution programs could emerge in coming months. The city of Memphis, for its part, recently held a gun collection program called Gifts for Guns to help stem the problem of gun violence in the community. On Feb. 4 of this year, 121 guns were handed over to the Memphis Police Department, each in exchange for $100 gift certificates from sponsoring organizations, including AutoZone, Mapco, the Memphis Crime Commission and Union Planters National Bank. The program was held in conjunction with casinos in Tunica County, Miss. "All of the guns have been checked. None have been involved in crimes, and none were stolen," said Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery. "Last time we did this (five years ago), we had the guns destroyed. They were all crushed into little pieces. This time, were looking into melting them down and making sort of a medallion, perhaps with the city logo, with a printing on the back saying the logo was made from destroyed guns in the Gifts for Guns program." He said the project is being researched and he is not certain of how many medallions could be created or of the cost involved. He said the city hopes to sponsor another Gifts for Guns event in the future, but plans for another event have not yet been formed. Plans have been made, however, for the opening of a Memphis office of the Jason Foundation, Flatt said. A team of volunteers is working to form the organization in the city, and the organization plans to open an office here by August. The organization provides teen seminars on suicide awareness and prevention, along with educational seminars in schools and for parents. "The parent seminars are a very important part of our foundation," Flatt said. "We go in and, with the parents, we talk first of all about suicide awareness that your son or daughter is more likely to be involved in a suicide attempt than they are an automobile accident where there is a fatality. Then, we talk about warning signs and what they can do." The foundation also plans to offer in-service training for teachers and hopes by the end of the year to offer in-house training for law enforcement officials, Flatt said. Anyone interested in volunteering with the foundation can contact its corporate office at (888) 881-2323. Thompson said the foundation and the trigger lock program have been successful so far, and he hopes to broaden the scope of that success around the state and maybe across the nation. "If I get 356 mayors, Ive got the opportunity to give away about 30,000 trigger locks," he said. Even people who dont own guns are encouraged to take advantage of the trigger lock program by giving a lock to a neighbor. One of the suicides that occurred in Hendersonville happened with a neighbors gun, Thompson said. "This kids mother didnt have a gun. He went next door and borrowed his neighbors shotgun, then went back to his house and killed himself. "Ive had people say, I dont have a gun and I dont need a trigger lock, and I tell them about this. I say, You know somebody in the neighborhood or somebody you know has a gun you take this and give it to them." He said support of the trigger lock has come from all sides. "I was in a restaurant in Nashville and a guy came up to me and said, Mayor, I really like what youve done. I think its a quick response to a serious problem. He said, Heres $100. Walked out. A complete stranger. "Ive just had a great response, and Im just really tickled about it."
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