People are buying more guns in Cumberland County, a pattern that follows a nationwide trend.
Sales and transfers of firearms in Cumberland County have increased substantially over the last decade and have risen sharply in recent years, according to Pennsylvania State Police data.
The sharp rise in firearm sales and applications locally and nationwide coincides with the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
That school shooting isn’t necessarily the cause of the rise in gun sales, but the shooting sparked a new round of debate about gun control, and research indicates gun sales and applications for licenses to carry increase in the wake of mass shootings.
A study published in 2017 in the peer-reviewed journal Science found 3 million more firearms were sold in the four months after the Sandy Hook shooting, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults inside the elementary school, than were sold during the same time frame in the years earlier.
The authors also found that the increase in sales is associated with an increase in accidental firearm deaths. More than twice as many people, including 20 children, died as a result of increased accidental shootings associated with higher firearm exposure from the rise in sales, according to the study.
From 1999 through 2011, roughly 6,000 to 7,000 firearms were sold or transferred annually in Cumberland County, according to data compiled from Pennsylvania State Police firearms annual reports.
The reports provide statistics and aggregate numbers on the use of the Pennsylvania Instant Checks System, including sales and transfers of firearms, license-to-carry applications and failures to pass background checks by potential buyers.
All handgun purchases require a background check in Pennsylvania. However, the private sale of long guns does not, which could lead to some under-counting for those types of guns.
Beginning in 2012, total firearms sales and transfers began to surge, rising to more than 9,000 that year and to more than 20,000 by 2016, the latest available year, according to State Police.
While the sale and transfer of both handguns and long guns rose during this time frame, the overall increase was driven heavily by the sale and transfer of handguns.
More than half of all handguns sold or transferred in the county since 1999 were sold after 2012, according to State Police reports.
License-to-carry applications also rose sharply in recent years.
From 1999 to 2006, applications for a license to carry, which allows a person to carry a concealed firearm, remained relatively steady at around 1,500 to 1,800 applications per year. That number jumped up to nearly 3,000 in 2007 and held between 2,000 and 3,000 applications yearly until 2012, State Police reports show.
License-to-carry applications rose sharply to nearly 5,000 applications in 2012 and have largely continued to increase, reaching more than 6,000 applications in 2016, according to State Police.
There has also been a roughly 170-percent increase in charged firearms violations in Cumberland County since 2010, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.
These firearms violations can include a person deemed not to possess a firearm being found in possession of one, concealed carrying a firearm without a license or making false statements when attempting to purchase a firearm or apply for a license to carry.
The largest increase, by a wide margin, in firearms violations in the county during that time frame came in charges for making false statements when attempting to purchase a firearm or apply for a license to carry.
Between 2010 and 2013, three cases were filed involving those charges, according to court records. More than 40 cases included that charge were filed in the county in 2016 alone, The Sentinel found.
A study published in 2017 in the journal Science found 3 million more firearms were sold in the four months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults, than were sold during the same time frame in the years earlier.
While the nationwide debate on gun control often centers on violent crimes, the majority of gun deaths occur in a different circumstance.
Roughly two-thirds of all firearm deaths in the United States each year are a result of a suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, research suggests a short waiting period of just a few days could be instrumental in saving at least some of those lives.
“People make impulsive decisions that could either end their life or have important implications for their health and safety in rather impulsive ways,” said Daniel Webster, director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Webster said studies interviewing suicide survivors have found the time between when a person decides to attempt suicide and when they attempt to carry it out tends to be rather quick. In many cases it can be as short as a few hours or minutes, Webster said.
“A waiting period is a mechanism to make sure there’s a pause button hit before someone has access to one of the most lethal means for suicide,” Webster said.
In general terms, a waiting period for a purchase of a firearm is a required amount of time between when the gun can be purchased and when it can be picked up by the person buying it. A waiting period of even three days can offer enough of a cooling-off period to allow the suicidal thoughts to pass, Webster said.
For many years, Pennsylvania required a 48-hour waiting period for the purchase of firearms. On the federal level, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act enacted in 1993 imposed a mandatory five-day waiting period on the sale of handguns.
Both of those policies went away in the late 1990s with the advent of instant background systems — the National Instant Criminal Background Check System on the federal level and the Pennsylvania Instant Check System in Pennsylvania.
A University of Alabama research paper published in 2015 found handgun waiting periods reduce firearm suicides by 3 percent without a subsequent rise in suicide deaths by other means.
Another study by lead author Michael Luca of Harvard Business School, published in 2017, found waiting periods reduce firearm suicides by 7 to 10 percent.
In 2016 there were nearly 1,000 firearm suicide deaths in Pennsylvania, according to state death records. A 3 percent reduction in firearm suicides would equate to roughly 30 fewer deaths each year.
Firearm suicides in Pennsylvania have risen nearly 40 percent since the elimination of the waiting period, according to death records compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
The sharpest rise in firearm suicides began in 2011 and coincides with a rise in sales of handguns, according to Pennsylvania death records and Pennsylvania State Police Firearm Annual Reports.
In fact, firearm suicide deaths rose and fell in almost direct relation to the rise and fall of handgun sales within the state, according to an analysis of state death and State Police records.
While this does not necessarily mean increased sales of handguns caused a rise in suicides, it does suggest a strong connection.
“A firearm is designed to kill things or people,” Webster said. “It’s understandable that we would want to take particular care with higher regulation.”
More than half of all suicide deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016 were attributed to firearms, according to state death records. Most attempted suicides with a firearm result in death.
A 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention found 90 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm were fatal. The next most lethal method was hanging, which resulted in death in 83 percent of cases. This is the difference of about 70 fewer deaths for every 1,000 attempts.
The Cumberland Valley School District will hire a school safety management firm to help evaluate safety plans for district buildings.
On Tuesday night, the Cumberland Valley School Board agreed to a multiyear contract with MG Tactical Advantage of Carlisle for costs not to exceed $22,000 in the district’s 2017-18 budget. For 2018-19, total costs must not exceed $30,500.
Last month, Superintendent Frederick Withum III announced that the district was doing an extensive review of its existing emergency preparedness plans in collaboration with government officials, law enforcement agencies, consultants and district parents. At that time, district officials began meeting with local law enforcement agencies to review Cumberland Valley’s existing preparedness plans.
Also, a meeting coordinated by state Rep. Greg Rothman and hosted by Cumberland Valley included area police chiefs, school superintendents, school board presidents and representatives from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. Another meeting coordinated by Rothman at CV reviewed school safety legislation being introduced. The Governor’s School Safety Task Force also was discussed with Marcus Brown, the state’s director of Homeland Security, in attendance.
The catalyst for this has been the mass shooting that took place Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students, teachers and staff died.
“The Parkland shooting has really changed the face of school violence unlike others before,” Withum said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
Withum said he believes it’s important to bring in a third-party assessment for safety planning across the district. “(MG Tactical) will go above and beyond what we already have from local officials. This company comes from the perspective of law enforcement and educational facilities management,” he said.
MG Tactical Advantage’s School Safety Division was founded by Mike Hurley, who served more than 28 years in the area as a school administrator, and former Carlisle police officer Mike Guido, who carries more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, according to the firm’s website.
Withum said that all district schools now in operation will be evaluated by the firm before the end of the current school year. The buildings will be evaluated again when empty this summer for such factors as security camera coverage and fire alarms. Winding Creek Elementary will be evaluated after it opens in August 2015, followed by the Mountain View building, which is scheduled to open in early 2019.
Also on Tuesday, the school board approved the first reading of a terroristic threat policy revision for the district. If finalized next month, the revisions would list a series of steps the district would need to undertake in the event of a terroristic threat by a student. This would include notifying the student’s building administrator, local police and district superintendent.
Depending on the circumstances and degree of a threat, offending students would be required to undergo FBI or psychological screening after a suspension or expulsion. Also, parents of minor offenders or student offender 18 or older would incur any “extra costs” resulting from a threat incident, such as police overtime or janitorial work, Withum said.
Mechanicsburg Area High School senior Madeline Bright summarizes her high school career and plans in a simple sentence.
“I like music and I like helping people,” she said.
Bright, the daughter of John and Christine Bright, earned a spot playing the French horn in the All-Eastern Band during her junior year. She could only apply for the honor after achieving All-State status during her sophomore year and submitting audition recordings. The experience took her to Atlantic City last April for three days of rehearsal — and good food — prior to a concert.
“That, to me, was the absolute coolest thing I got to do,” Bright said.
Music has been part of Bright’s life inside and outside of school as she’s also participated in the Lebanon Perseverance Band, the New Cumberland Town Band and the Harrisburg Youth Symphony Orchestra. Bright shared her love of music by volunteering at an event at the school district at which younger students can try out instruments.
“We teach them enough so that they can make some sort of elephant noise on the instrument,” Bright said.
Ideally, the student connects with one of the instruments and decides to play it. That’s not always what happens.
“That’s OK, too. Maybe that’s just not their skill area. Everyone, I think, has some sort of talent to share,” Bright said.
Bright said someone could sit her down in any classroom, and she would be interested just because she enjoys learning. But learning, for her, is connected to a deeper sense of purpose.
“It’s just finding new information and then being able to use that to help other people. It’s so exciting,” she said.
That’s part of the thinking behind her interest in attending Drexel University to major in computer science and cybersecurity. Forensic computer science isn’t as interesting to Bright as looking at malware and finding ways to stop it.
“I can help protect them. Let’s face it. There’s a lot of people who are at risk simply because they’re naive. They know how to use a computer, but they don’t know the ways in which it grows wrong,” Bright said.
She pointed to the scandal surrounding Facebook in which the social media platform allegedly shared the data of some 87 million users with a data-mining firm, Cambridge Analytica, to sway elections. Users trusted Facebook because it gave them access to the things they wanted.
“They figured it was a small price to pay because it’s free, and, because it’s buried in complex legalese, they didn’t realize how much of their personal information they were giving out. Now, they’re questioning it,” Bright said.
In addition to working in cybersecurity, Bright plans to become a certified transcribist for Unified English Braille Code, which would put her name on a register at the Library of Congress so that people who need transcription services can contact her.
“I would be sent materials and then I would write them out in braille,” she said.
Taking such a path is a natural step for Bright who has been advocate not only for her own needs but also for others with disabilities. Recently, she created a video for the organization Rooted in Rights to raise awareness of the need for websites to be accessible to those with disabilities.
“I speak up a lot about disability activism because I have a disability and it impacts my life,” she said. “It’s an interesting thing to realize that your voice his power. When you speak up for yourself, you’re not only speaking up for one person. You can speak up for multiple people. Changing one person’s misconception one day might lead them to change someone else’s misconception the next day.”