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Great Mills High School student Desmond Barnes, 14, and a teacher communicate with a 911 operator after a shooting at the school.

As people who’ve experienced trauma — one of us a student who was traumatized by a shooting at her high school in Great Mills, and the other an educator who has lost students to gun violence and supported others through the loss of family members and friends — we believe that a better future for Maryland must include stricter gun laws. We must not be satisfied with “good enough” when we desperately need “safe and strong enough.”

Nationwide, firearms are the 3rd leading cause of death for youth under 18. In Maryland, firearms are tied as the second leading cause of death in people aged 17 and under, despite 2013 legislation that placed the state’s gun laws among the toughest in the country. It’s time to toughen them further.

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In 2018, a 17-year-old boy entered Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County with a firearm obtained from his home. Staff and students watched in horror as the boy murdered one student, wounded another and then took his own life.

Maryland’s child access prevention law (CAP) lacks the strong penalties and age-related restrictions that have been demonstrated to reduce shootings like the one at Great Mills High School. Furthermore, multiple studies have indicated that states that have felony CAP laws have larger reductions in unintentional firearm deaths compared with those associated with misdemeanor CAP laws (such as the current Maryland law). Stronger CAP laws also address the too often neglected issue of suicide by firearm, creating a physical barrier between someone contemplating suicide and the single most lethal method for doing so.

Maryland’s current CAP law states that a person “may not store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child would gain access to the firearm.” But this does not apply if the child’s access is supervised by an individual age 18 or older, the child’s access was obtained as a result of an unlawful entry, the firearm is in the possession or control of a law enforcement officer while the officer is engaged in official duties or the child has a certificate of firearm and hunter safety.

If this law is violated, it is only considered a misdemeanor, and a potential fine of up to $1,000 may be imposed only if the adult is found actually negligent. There is also no provision that would hold responsible adults accountable. Additionally, the current definition of a child for purposes of this law is someone under 16 years old — even when the majority of states that have child access prevention laws have a higher age requirement.

The current Maryland CAP law did not apply to the shooter at Great Mills: He was 17 years old and held a certificate of firearm and hunter safety. Like so many school shooters before him, he took a family member’s gun. There is no good reason for 17-year-olds to have such unrestricted access to firearms, and a good first step toward better gun laws in Maryland is to raise the current law to include any child under 18.

We must change gun laws, but it is also true that we must address issues that intersect with gun violence and provide opportunity for those most underserved — like investing substantially more in students who need the most support; making housing more affordable; ensuring universal access to quality health care, including mental health services and addiction treatment; securing more job opportunities for those who need them, including those who are formerly incarcerated; and pushing for overall community prosperity and opportunity for Maryland families from the communities in Southern Maryland to the mountains of Western Maryland to the neighborhoods in Baltimore and the communities by the Chesapeake Bay.

In this upcoming legislative session, our policymakers must not just hear, but truly listen to and learn from those who have been affected by gun violence and understand that Maryland’s future depends on their actions today. Our hope is that a tragedy like Great Mills or Parkland or Clark Atlanta or El Paso or Dayton or the other countless incidents across the nation will never happen again. But we cannot make that real until politicians and policymakers work together to prevent gun violence.

John B. King Jr. (John.King@edtrust.org) is former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, a Montgomery County resident and a board member with Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence. Jaxon O’Mara is the head of March For Our Lives in Maryland and a student at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She was a student at Great Mills at the time of the shooting.

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