Gun Safety: What You Don't Know Can Hurt

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 5, 2000 -- Do you know if guns are stored safely in your home? If you're a woman, the answer is "probably not," according to a study in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The study, from the Harvard School of Public Health, revealed an information gap between gun owners (mostly male) and nonowners (mostly female) in U.S. households with children. In fact, in homes with children, many women don't even know how many firearms are on hand.

Gun-related deaths continue to be the second leading cause of death in children in the U.S. between the ages of 10 and 19. Recent studies indicate than over three-quarters of the guns used by children in both suicide and homicide attempts were taken from the home of the child, a friend, or a relative. And the most common cause of accidental shootings among children is playing with guns that are unlocked and loaded.

To explore kids' access to guns, the researchers surveyed adults in over 400 households with firearms. Participants were assured that their responses and contact information were strictly confidential.

Study author Deborah Azrael, MS, tells WebMD, "Thirty percent of gun owners reported that their firearms were loaded, or loaded and unlocked, compared to only 9% of nonowners [in the same residence]. The disconnect may be one reason why firearm deaths among children are nine times higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries."

The data also showed that women and those who owned a gun for protection were significantly more likely to store loaded firearms, as were those who lived in the South. Fortunately, gun owners with children less than 13 years of age were more likely to store firearms locked and unloaded.

When it comes to gun storage, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) see eye-to-eye. "The basic idea is to limit access to children," says Danielle Laraque, MD, author of the AAP's firearm policy statement and chief of general pediatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

When it comes to gun ownership, though, the NRA and AAP part ways. "It's better not to have guns in the home at all," Laraque tells WebMD. "Every year in the U.S., 4,000 children die from gun-related accidents, homicides, and suicides. So our position on firearms isn't about politics -- it's about public health."

Laraque says adults should take all of the following precautions:

  • Keep guns locked, unloaded, and away from ammunition
  • Use separate lock boxes for guns and ammunition
  • Store keys in a different location

Responsibility for gun safety doesn't just fall on the women's shoulders, though. Doctors can also play a role. "Women are more likely than men to take kids to the doctor, so pediatricians have a great opportunity to encourage them to participate in household decisions about gun storage," Azrael tells WebMD.

Laraque agrees: "Pediatricians and parents are partners in care, so we're all responsible for gun safety ... starting a dialog with mothers is important, but should include both parents ideally. ... Some parents might not appreciate our input, but not talking about it is not a solution."

The study was supported by Harvard University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, the Open Society Institute, and numerous private foundations.