Missouri gun culture makes kids shooting kids as normal as cotton candy at a carnival

Our culture of gun violence is ruining fun family events in the Kansas City area and worse, threatening the lives of kids.

The latest evidence of that was this past weekend when three 16-year-olds and a young adult were injured in a shooting at the popular SantaCaliGon Days festival in Independence.

Police are still looking for the shooter. We don’t know his age but police said witnesses told them the shooter got into a shoving match with another teen and then pulled a gun out of his backpack.

Of course he did. In a society where gun possession is so valued and promoted even, what else do we expect a poor-decision-making teen to do to solve a conflict?

”We might think that a kid with a gun is irrational behavior, but in a lot of ways it is actually rational behavior,” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at University of Missouri-Kansas City. In a culture where “there are so many guns out there, a kid knows they are at risk of becoming a victim of gun violence, so they carry a gun too.” And so it goes.

In 2019, a teen involved in an altercation with some other teens shot and killed an innocent 25-year-old bystander at Kansas City’s First Fridays, another popular family fun event. First Fridays, which until then had drawn thousands to downtown, still has not recovered.

And according to news reports, some who were at the Independence festival when Sunday’s shooting occurred said they aren’t so keen on coming back next year. The festival has been going on at the historic Independence Square every Labor Day weekend since 1940.

After this recent weekend shooting in the carnival section of this annual eastern Jackson County festival, Independence police are working on ways to make the festival safer next year by creating a single entrance area and possibly using metal detectors. That sure says family fun, doesn’t it?

Clearly safety measures are necessary. But that can’t be the only answer because, experts agree, there is no single path to changing the culture. And that’s what’s needed.

Too many of our youths have access to guns. We have to change the culture of guns — the idea that everyone has the right to have a gun at any time in any place — and the attitude that conflict is best solved with guns. “Kids grow up thinking they have the right to have a gun, and if you feel threatened you can shoot somebody,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and leader in the movement to end gun violence in America.

A problem of education, not a lack of policing

In Missouri and across the country, we have for decades tried treating youth gun violence as a crime problem. Millions spent every year on police budgets have not solved it. Schools already have a lot on their plate, especially since 2020 with COVID-19, remote schooling and learning loss, but a heftier helping of conflict resolution and teaching deescalation would help.

“Using guns to settle disputes and arguments is normative around Kansas City, so we run the risk of viewing this violence as normal because it is what we have become accustomed to expect,” Novak said.

It’s an “urgent public health crisis” that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky says she wants to tackle without alienating responsible gun owners.

Because it’s true: Guns alone don’t kill people; people use guns to kill people — an argument gun advocates are quick to make when challenged about the culture of gun violence in this country.

But there have to be rules, strict rules when guns are involved. And the lives of children, everywhere and particularly in Missouri, where kids die from gun violence at rates that are among the highest in the nation, according to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Center for American Progress.

Stricter gun laws help. Looking at homicides, a Giffords Center analysis found that states with the highest rates, including Missouri and Kansas, tend to have the fewest restrictions.

If there are guns in a home where children live, the adult gun owner should be held responsible for negligent storage of guns where a child can gain access. Missouri does not have any child access prevention laws. It should. Kansas has no state statute specifically relating to gun access by children, but prohibits anyone leaving explosive or dangerous substances where a child can get at them.

Kansans and Missourians need to remember that the law isn’t solely about how we punish. It’s also about what we praise. It can provide a tool for discouraging bad actors, sure, but where that fails, there is still its power to train good citizens. Ones who don’t shoot members of their community at a family event.