Sept. 25, 2000 -- New research suggests that gun-owning parents of troubled teens don't seem to be getting the message experts have been trying to give. Even after being advised that the presence of guns in their home is associated with suicides in depressed teen-agers, most parents of depressed teens didn't remove their firearms, reports a study in the October issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
"These results are disappointing but not surprising. I'm not sure how far in the minds of the public [the message] that keeping a loaded and readily available gun in the home is a hazard has penetrated," Arthur Kellerman, MD, tells WebMD. "I tell people please, for the love of your kid, keep your guns locked up, unloaded, and keep the ammunition separately locked up. Make sure only you have access." Kellerman is professor and chairman of emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and has conducted extensive research on the hazards of guns.
More than 100 depressed teens and their families were interviewed both before treatment for depression and several times after treatment was stopped. In addition to variables like whom the child lived with and where, the presence of a gun in the home also was assessed.
"When it was determined that firearms were present in the home, the treating [doctor] ... presented the parent or parents with the research associating firearms in the home with an increased suicide risk, and a firm recommendation was made for the firearms to be removed from the home and stored in another location," write David Brent, MD, and colleagues at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.
The authors found that of the 26 families, 27% had removed the firearms from the home and the majority -- 73% -- had kept them. Those families whose teen-ager had attempted suicide in the past were somewhat more likely to remove their guns than those who did not report a suicide attempt.
Even of more concern was the fact that two years later, of the families who had removed guns from the home, only 36% kept them out. In addition, 17% of families who had not previously had guns had actually bought them.
"Many parents simply do not believe their child would attempt suicide," says Daniel Webster, ScD, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. "My own research has shown that this is particularly true among gun owners. We know that we have a particularly big task at hand: First to convince people that guns in the home do present a risk, and second to get them to change their behavior."
Webster says there are devices on the horizon that potentially offer parents a safer way to store their guns. "Some of these devices work in such a way that only an authorized user would be able to make the gun fire," he says. "We know that typically parents are much more responsive to safer storage options than getting rid of a gun."
Both Webster and Kellerman identify lack of government funding for research related to gun issues as a big problem. Webster says, "The National Rifle Association is a very powerful lobbying organization and has kept the federal government from funding studies that would look at the effectiveness of locking devices in reducing gun accidents and suicides in the home. Foundations provide the primary means of support right now, but what's needed is public education to get people to realize the real risks of having guns in the home."