Usually, it's the small children who accidentally shoot themselves or someone else with a parent's gun that make the big headlines. The teens who commit suicide with a family gun tend to attract less attention in many communities.
Either way, though, the guns have to be accessible. And the results of a newly published survey of gun-owning parents that was carried out in pediatricians' offices across the United States and Canada found that only about 30 percent of families with guns and kids store the weapons safely.
"Over 70 percent of the families surveyed reported not storing their firearms safely in their residence," said Robert DuRant, a pediatric researcher at Brenner Children's Hospital at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
DuRant and Dr. Shari Barkin, now at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and colleagues worked with pediatric offices in 45 states, Puerto Rico and Canada to survey 3,745 parents about the presence and storage of guns in the home. The results were published this week in the journal Pediatrics.
About 23 percent of the parents said they kept guns at home, with gun ownership highest in families with two adults in the home, a total family income of at least $40,000 a year and who lived in rural areas.
Safe storage was defined as keeping guns unloaded and locked in a cabinet or with a gun lock, and having ammunition stored separately. Yet depending on the type of gun, parents reported that between 26 percent to nearly 40 percent were hidden someplace other than in a locked cabinet.
"Our research shows that unsafe gun storage is associated with families who were raised with guns in the home," DuRant said. "They tend to be more comfortable with guns and are less likely to store them safely.
"We also found that families who had children aged 2 to 5 years and owned long guns (rifles and shotguns) were more likely to store guns safely than families with older children."
Yet guns pose a major household hazard for all youngsters, and especially for older children who are at more risk for suicide. Over 60 percent of teen suicides involve firearms. Guns killed more than 2,700 children and teens in 2003, according to the latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most from homicide or suicide. But more than one in five involved an accidental shooting.
The pediatricians' surveys also showed that families who owned only long guns were more likely to keep them unlocked, but keep the ammunition separate, while those owning hand guns only were more likely to store them locked, but kept loaded.
Parents who owned both handguns and long guns were generally less likely to keep any of the guns locked.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which publishes the journal, is encouraging members to routinely ask parents about the presence of guns at home as part of a general rundown on safety during children's checkups.
"We are encouraging all pediatricians to talk with parents about safe gun-storage practices," DuRant said. "We want to prevent unnecessary deaths."
Nineteen states have laws or legal rulings that specifically hold gun owners accountable for leaving a firearm easily accessible to a child.
Guns in the home are a danger year-round, but parents might particularly want to assess how they're stored now, considering that schools break for the summer and there's a greater chance that bored youngsters might be tempted by them.
A recent report by the advocacy group Safe Kids Worldwide noted that the risk of accidental injury and death for children soars from several sources in the summer. Citing fatalities between May 1 and Aug. 31, 2004, the group found that an average of 17 children a day died from accidental injuries during that period.
The five most common causes of accidental-injury deaths in the summer: drowning (which increases 89 percent in the summer months over the annual monthly average); bicycles (up 45 percent in summer); falls (up 21 percent); motor-vehicle-passenger injury (up 20 percent) and pedestrian injuries (up 16 percent).
So along with safeguarding guns, precautions like fencing home pools, making sure kids wear bike helmets and sit in properly installed car booster seats and securing windows and doors above the first floor, can make a big difference in reducing warm-weather tragedies.
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