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How moms are quietly passing gun safety policy through school boards

Ever since her daughter survived a mass shooting two decades ago, Donna Finkelstein has asked friends and acquaintances whether they have a gun in their home and whether they keep it securely locked up. People used to think the question was a political one and rude to ask, she said. But she viewed it as no different from checking whether their pool was gated.

Finkelstein’s daughter was 16 when she was hit in the leg by one of 70 rounds that a white supremacist gunman fired into a Southern California Jewish community center in 1999. The incident, which wounded five people, prompted Finkelstein to start a local chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, now called Brady: United to Prevent Gun Violence. She regularly gave presentations about keeping kids safe from guns to parent-teacher associations, churches and synagogues, “anyone that would have me,” she said.

“When I started becoming an activist, I realized that we’re not going to win the argument of taking guns away,” said Finkelstein, 67, a semi-retired school counselor who is also a board member of Women Against Gun Violence. “To me, it was all about prevention.”

A few years ago, Finkelstein concluded that one of the most efficient ways to teach parents about keeping their guns safely stored would be to have public schools distribute the information. She met with Los Angeles school board members and the district superintendent and spoke before a school safety panel convened by City Attorney Mike Feuer. Last June, the school board unanimously endorsed a resolution asking parents to attest that any firearms they own are safely stored — becoming the largest school district nationally to do so.

Since then — driven by activists like Finkelstein with the groups Women Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action — several other school districts have passed similar policies asking parents to sign letters saying they know why it’s important to keep guns securely stored. Last Thursday, the Phoenix Union High School District became the latest to enact a policy that mirrors the Los Angeles one, and St. Louis Public Schools will vote on a similar proposal Tuesday. In addition, five school districts in Southern California, as well as Denver Public Schools, have launched secure gun storage awareness campaigns, and the Brady campaign said it’s working on one with Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The quick spread of these policies without much resistance has largely gone unnoticed, but experts say it could be one of the most effective approaches to curb all sorts of firearm-related dangers, especially school shootings. Activists argue that the recent school board votes demonstrate the power parents have in their own communities to lobby local politicians who are often overlooked in the national debate about gun control and could inspire more gun safety measures at the city or state level.

“This is a really good example of something a school can do without needing any act of Congress,” said Jillian Peterson, a criminal justice professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-founder of The Violence Project, a federally funded research initiative.