Gun violence is a tricky topic to write about. It’s emotionally laden, there are political overtones that bring out passion and I find quicksand when I never expect it.
No matter where you fall on issues related to firearm safety, there is no doubt that we all want the same thing: healthy communities, healthy families, and safe environments to raise our children.
Unfortunately, we continue to have countless reminders about the curiosity of children in the presence of a loaded firearm. No question children and guns are a dangerous combination.
According to the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey that is administered nationally by CDC, in 2013, there were an estimated 73,000 Washington state children that resided in homes where guns were loaded and unlocked. Nationally, 1.7 million children and teens in the U.S. live in a home with a loaded, unlocked gun.
Kids don’t always know what to do when they find one, but curiosity leads. In a research study entitled, “Seeing Is Believing,” researchers put boys in a room where there were water guns and pistols and watched behind a mirror while they played. The 8 to 12 year-old boys who stumbled upon a gun had a hard time figuring out it if was a toy or a real gun. When they did find it, almost half pulled the trigger. Half pulled the trigger! CURIOSITY is that innocent, protectable right of children that drives this dangerous act.
I don’t need to detail deaths, but quick mentions of gun-related injuries and tragic losses in America can bring fresh energy for necessary safety measures we are all responsible for, gun owners or not. A 3-year-old in New Mexico shot his parents when he grabbed a gun out of his mother’s purse and not the iPod or phone he was searching for. The mother was pregnant and there was also a 2-year-old girl in the room at the time. In the past month we’ve heard about the horrific tragedies with three shootings on college campuses and the unthinkable tragedy of an 11-year-old who shot an 8-year-old this past month over wanting to see a puppy.
Locally, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Marysville-Pilchuck High School shooting, I’m cautious yet hopeful that we are better ready to help families make great choices in protecting their families. We want teens to have the support they need to help identify friends and peers who are at risk for harming themselves or others, and we want all gun owners to be aware of ensuring that guns are stored safely. We know storing firearms locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately, can greatly reduce the risk of injuries and deaths involving children and teens. This is especially true in homes where teens have a challenge with mental health.
The risk of a youth suicide in King County is 9 times higher in homes where firearms are kept unlocked, compared to homes where firearms are kept locked. Children and teens are at the greatest risk of unintentional deaths, injuries and suicides from guns in homes where the guns are kept unlocked.
Children’s development is led by their curiosity, but their judgment will always lag well behind. This is probably true for all of childhood and adolescence — think of your own decisions while young — exploration and adventure first, judgment later. Extending ourselves is inherent when we’re young, part of the true gift of the innocence of childhood.
4 Tips On How To Ask About Guns At Home:
- Make asking the norm in your routine. If you start asking at every single first play-date or drop-off and you encourage your friends and neighbors to ask about how guns are stored, this will be the norm. Safe gun storage is an important issue for gun owners and for non-gun owners.
- Deflect to your pediatrician. Start a conversation with, “My pediatrician recommended that we ask about guns before every play date. If you have guns in your home, are they stored in a lock box separate from ammunition?”
- Remind friends/family of children’s curiosity — even children potentially trained in gun safety may have unexpected curiosity, and peer pressure can change everything.
- Teach children never to be with guns without adults. Teach your children never to touch a gun (toy or not) that they discover and to find a grown-up immediately if they find one or another child touches one or picks it up.
As we know all too clearly, gun violence can happen in any state and in any community and in any family. Although I’m not ready to talk about it publicly yet, it’s touched my family too. So know this is personal and I’m passionate about improving how we protect children and families from gun violence while we mutually respect personal choice and different opinions at the same time. Any decrease in injuries to children, teens and their families will be a wild success in my mind.
Data That Drives The Need For Change:
- Like I said above, children are naturally curious (!) and they explore in drawers, cabinets and closets. Research shows that children are also strong enough to fire many handguns on the market today.
- In Washington State, a child or teen is killed by gunfire every 8 days, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Additionally, in a 2003 CDC report, 60.9% of firearms used in school-associated homicides or suicides in the U.S. came from the perpetrator’s home or from a friend or relative.
- During the 2011-2012 school year, the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction reported 84 incidents involving a firearm on school premises, transportation systems, or school facilities. In 2012, over 17% of 8th grade students, over 20% of 10th grade students and almost 23% of 12th grade students in Washington state reported it was “sort of easy” or “very easy” to get a handgun.
- Research finds that storing firearms locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked up separately, can reduce the risk of injuries and deaths involving children and teens.
I’m thankful to be a part of Seattle Children’s efforts to improve safety and reduce injuries secondary to firearms. One of our programs promotes secure storage of guns. Already, the hospital, along with several hospital, public health and community partners, have given away over 1,800 lock boxes and trigger locks to date. Pediatrician and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Bruder Stapleton says it well:
We know that the easy access to firearms in a home is a risk factor for firearm-related death and injury. By providing the tools to safely store guns in the home, we hope to reduce this risk factor and help prevent firearm-related incidents or gun violence.
Gun safety is not a new topic to me. I wrote this post regarding guns in the home in 2010 and this one in 2013. Last year I also wrote about my desire to make sure we’re still able, as pediatricians, to talk with families about the value behind the data that safe storage of guns at home decreases likelihood of injury and/or death to children. As gun violence and firearm-related accidents continue to plague children in our nation, I will continue to address this issue with the hope that we, as a community, can work together to do what’s right – to advocate for safe gun storage in the home and keep our children safe.
We Want To Hear From You!
I always ask! So far it has started a good conversation with each family I have asked. here is what I wrote last time I asked (last week!):
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but if you have any guns in your house, are the locked up away from the kids? We do not have any guns at our place, but as I grew up in a rural area in a family that hunted, I think about guns being around.”
Your post reminds me to ask if ammunition is stored separately as well. I will add that next time!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
I think also framing the question about guns amid other safety measures (booster seats, pool safety, food, etc) can de-escalate it.
Amanda Turner says
I 100% ask before every play date. I started this policy 2 years ago after the SPU shooting when I first realized how prevalent gun violence is. Every single parent I’ve asked has been supportive or at least polite, and by getting into the habit of asking, it gets easier every time.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Gets easier every time — totally agree!
Thank you so much for this article! Now that my daughter is almost 2 years old and we are interacting with new friends and families as our playdate circle grows, this question becomes increasingly important to me (both in asking the question and responding when asked of me and our household). This can also be applied to other weapons (especially with hunting season), such as bows, knives, etc.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
At what age do you think it’s appropriate to have conversations with a child about guns? Basic things– this is a gun, never ever touch one if you see one, always find an adult, etc.
David Lake says
Living in Australia, we parents and grandparents do not ask about guns before a play date. That’s because we don’t encounter anybody who even owns a gun. I am 65 and still have never seen, or heard of, a handgun in a friend’s home. Or a rifle. Or a semi-automatic military weapon for self-defence. The only people I know of who have guns are farmers and police.
Rachel S says
Gun safety is an incredibly important conversation to have with kids. I know that quite a few of my neighbors and friends keep guns in their homes for various reasons, and with young nieces and nephews who I spend a lot of time with, I think gun safety should be a top priority. I appreciate the tips about bringing it up in a conversation, that will definitely be helpful. Thank you for sharing.