Gun Violence Prevention: The Role of the CFLE in the Movement to Save Families

Julia M. Bernard, Ph.D., LMFT, CFLE
/ CFLE Network, Fall 2018

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Julia M. Bernard

Coming from a family that likes to hunt, guns were part of my upbringing. I was raised on a ranch, where I had to periodically take a shot at a chicken hawk or snake trying to snatch up our livestock. But after Sandy Hook, something in me changed. It wasn’t the first school shooting I remembered (I was in college when Columbine happened), but it was the first one that occurred after I became a mother. Holding my infant in my arms, I watched the coverage of the tragedy unfold. I had to do something.

As a mental health professional, I knew the toll this was taking on others throughout this country. Not long after the shooting, I saw a call to action on a Facebook post. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was looking for moms (and dads, family members, single folks) who were tired of the gun violence and were ready to support common sense legislation. Here was a nonpartisan group that was advocating for laws that made sense to me. One of the areas this grassroots group of volunteers advocates for are changes in how families responsibly store their guns. Their mission resonated with me.

Moms Demand Action was started by Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mom, on December 15, 2012, in response to the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Five and half years later, this grassroots organization has chapters in all 50 states and works at local, state, and federal levels to improve America’s gun laws. Moms Demand Action members visit their representatives when gun legislation comes up; teach the Be SMART program on gun safety at parent–teacher association meetings, churches, and more; and advocate on behalf of gun violence survivors.

Being raised in a guns-everywhere culture, I vividly recall having a family friend shoot himself in Russian roulette. He was 11. I also recall losing a cousin to interpersonal gun violence. Additionally, Moms Demand Action, along with the Everytown Survivor Network, works to empower survivors of gun violence to use their experience to advocate for solutions that would prevent similar gun deaths.

For me, the most appealing part of Moms Demand Action is the opportunity to do community outreach and programming. As a Certified Family Life Educator, I knew I could make an impact in the gun violence prevention movement. I was trained as a Be SMART trainer and was able to do the training for the public at our local library, as well as share the message at festivals and town events.

Moms Demand Action developed the Be SMART program because every year, nearly 300 children aged 17 and under gain access to a gun and unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else. Additionally, nearly 500 more young people die by suicide with a gun. These deaths are preventable with responsible gun storage. We know we can keep our kids safer by introducing these five easy steps to parenting and everyday life:

Secure guns in homes and vehicles.

Model responsible behavior.

Ask about unsecured guns in other homes.

Recognize the risks of teen suicide.

Tell your peers to be SMART.

As a CFLE, my part in the organization is to be involved in our local chapter with Be SMART. In a 30-minute program, I can share stories that can change lives and teach people to advocate for their children’s safety. I can give them gun locks to take home and secure their weapon. I can teach them to model responsible behavior like keeping guns out of reach of children and secured safely without being loaded. I can teach them to ask about unsecured weapons and have conversations about what kinds of exposure their child might have a friend’s house. Just like starting a discussion about foods your child might be allergic to, it’s just as simple to start a discussion about guns in the home and how they’re secured. When they answer that they do have guns, they might instantly tell you how they store them if they are responsible gun owners. And if they have them but they are unsecured (in a closet, under a bed, in a nightstand), then you can say you aren’t comfortable with your child going there and suggest meeting at your home or at a neutral location like a park. The program also goes through recognizing the risk for teen suicide. Knowing the warning signs and minimizing the access to a weapon can help save the life of a teenager. Being able to use my skills as a CFLE to spread the gun prevention message is so rewarding. If I can help even one family prevent a tragedy, I feel like I am doing pretty well.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, 33,594 people died from firearm injuries in the United States, accounting for 16.8% of all injury deaths in that year (Kochanek, Murphy, Xu, & Tejada-Vera, 2016). Contrary to popular belief, research has shown us that private firearm ownership is positively correlated with more reports of firearm-arm-related assault, robbery, or homicide rates reported by official law enforcement agencies (Monuteaux, Lee, Hemenway, Mannix, & Fleegler, 2015). Farah, Simon, and Kellermann (1999) reported that parents of children aged 4 to 12 years, properly and safely stored their firearm 48% of the time. They reported that 13% kept weapons loaded and unlocked, 12% kept weapons loaded and locked, and another 27% kept their firearms unloaded but unlocked. Compared with other causes of death, gun violence was addressed in fewer publications and has received less funding than predicted compared with other mortality rates. Gun violence, for example, killed as many people as sepsis, but received funding for 0.7% of what sepsis research received. Gun violence is the least researched cause of death (Stark & Shah, 2017). In an age of lockdowns and active shooter trainings, we need to be doing more on a personal level with families to prevent tragedies from happening.

Certified Family Life Educators are well poised to help in the prevention of gun violence. We know what our communities need and what parents need and can adjust our programming to include programs like Be SMART. We must be comfortable having the conversation about the dangers of firearms, the risks families take with their children, and the lack of research in this area. If we can save one child with the inclusion of this information, then it was well worth it to bring up the topic. Families are receptive to the idea of safety. Law enforcement officials will support efforts by providing free gun locks. Much like conversations about child safety seats, the more we can make gun safety and Be SMART a routine practice, the easier it will be to save lives.

Julia M. Bernard, Ph.D., LMFT, CFLE, is an Associate Professor/Interim Chair, Department of Counseling and Human Services, East Tennessee State University, [email protected].



Farah, M. M., & Simon, H. K., & Kellermann, A. L. (1999). Firearms in the home: Parental perceptions. Pediatrics, 104, 1059–1063.

Kochanek, K. D., Murphy, S. L., Xu, J. Q., & Tejada-Vera, B. (2016). Deaths: Final data for 2014. National Vital Statistics Reports, 65(4). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. (2018, September 10). About Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Retrieved from

Monuteaux, M. C., Lee, L. K., Hemenway, D., Mannix, R., Fleegler, E. W. (2015). Firearm ownership and violent crime in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 49, 207–214.

Stark, D. E., & Shah, N. H. (2017). Funding and publication of research on gun violence and other leading causes of death. Journal of the American Medical Association, 317, 84–85. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.16215.