Rebecca Bell, MD, MPH, is a pediatric critical care physician at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

The first patient death I experienced years ago as a Pediatric Critical Care fellow in training was an elementary school-aged boy who shot himself in the head with his father’s gun.  He was immediately rushed to the hospital where we worked to save his life. Despite the small caliber of the gun, the bullet had inflicted irreversible damage to his brain and he died later that day. Brief news coverage of the boy’s death deemed it a tragic and unfortunate accident. 

What makes this story more tragic is that it occurs all too frequently in this country. My patient’s story was not unique. According to the CDC, 7 children are killed every day by firearms. Of all the children less than 14 years old killed by firearms in high income countries, over 90% are from the U.S. Many of these shootings are self-inflicted or involve children accidentally shooting other children in the home. What can we do to prevent these avoidable tragedies?

First, it’s imperative to understand the risks of having a gun in the home. Whether you have a gun in the house for hunting, recreation, or self-protection, there is a risk that it can be used to harm a family member. A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting, domestic homicide or suicide than to be used in self-defense. 

Gun Safety: What Parents Can Do

If you do choose to have a gun in your home there are ways to protect your family from an unintentional shooting. 

All firearms should be:

  • Stored in a locked container with an additional cable or trigger lock
  • Stored unloaded and ammunition should be stored and locked in a separate location

These practices have been shown to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death in the home. 

The Pediatrician’s Role

Just as your child’s pediatrician discusses seat belts, helmets and water safety with you and your child, they will also discuss gun safety. This is to ensure that your child’s environment is as safe as possible. Your pediatrician may also discuss some myths about gun safety that we hear frequently from parents. 

Myth 1: “My child doesn’t know where the guns are stored”

Children are naturally curious and love to explore. In the U.S., 1 in 3 homes with children have guns and most of these children know where firearms are located. A recent study found that 40% of parents mistakenly believe their children are unaware of the storage location of guns in their home.

Myth 2: “My child knows not to touch guns”

Parents are often unaware that their children have handled household guns despite being instructed not to. In addition, studies have shown that participation in a firearm safety course does not reduce the risk that a child will handle a gun. One study found that over 70% of 8-12 year old boys found a hidden handgun within 15 minutes, greater than 70% of those that found the gun handled it and 50% pulled the trigger. More than 90% of the boys that handled the gun or pulled the trigger had previously received gun safety instructions. 

Simply put, children will always be interested in exploring their environment. It is never safe to assume that a child won’t find or handle a gun in the home. 

Myth 3: “My child has been trained to handle a gun safely”

Some parents believe that as their children become teenagers they don’t need to worry as much about access to guns. Unfortunately, both unintentional and intentional firearm injuries occur in this age group. Suicide, in particular, is a big concern. Access to firearms is an independent risk factor for suicide and most adolescents who commit suicide with a firearm use a family member’s gun.

What Else Can Parents Do?

All parents can help reduce gun injury and death by asking friends and relatives about guns in their homes. The ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Campaign is a partnership of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The campaign encourages parents to ask about unlocked guns in the homes where their children play. Just as parents discuss adult supervision or food allergies with the parents of their children’s friends, they should also ask about the presence and accessibility of guns. Together, pediatricians and parents can raise awareness about the dangers of unsecured guns in the home.

Rebecca Bell, MD, MPH, is a pediatric critical care physician at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital. She is also an assistant professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. 

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