By: Judy Schaechter, MD, MBA, FAAP
Did you know that roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns? In fact, an estimated 4.6 million kids live with unlocked, loaded guns. That's a scary statistic when you think about the fact that even young toddlers are capable of finding unlocked guns in the home, and they are strong enough to pull the trigger.
As a parent, you may not realize what a serious risk a gun in the home is, especially for children. Firearms are now the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens. And the reality is that having firearms in the home increases the risk of unintentional shootings, suicide and homicide.
Unintentional shootings happen to children of all ages. In homes with guns, the likelihood of accidental death by shooting is four times higher.
Between 2015 and 2020, there were at least 2,070 unintentional shootings by children that resulted in 765 deaths and 1,366 nonfatal gun injuries. In 2020 alone, at least 125 toddlers and children age 5 and under shot themselves or someone else. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't helped. From March to December 2020, unintended shooting deaths by kids went up more than 30% compared to the same time period in 2019.
Kids and adolescents are at an increased risk for suicide when there is a gun in the home, too. Suicide rates in this population are four times higher than for kids who live in homes without guns. In the past decade, 40% of the suicides committed by kids and teens involved guns. Nine out of 10 of these suicides were with guns that the victims accessed at their own homes or from a relative's home.
The risk of homicide is three times higher when there are guns in the home. Not only that, but 58% of shooting deaths in children and teens are homicides.
The most effective way to keep kids safe
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that the safest home for a child is one without guns. The most effective way to prevent unintentional gun injuries, suicide and homicide to children and adolescents, research shows, is the absence of guns from homes and communities.
What to do if you do keep a gun in your home
If you decide to keep guns in the home, be aware that many studies show that teaching kids about gun safety, or to not touch a firearm if they find one, is not enough. You can reduce the chances of children being injured, however, by following import ant safety rules:
Safe storage. All guns in your home should be
locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately. Make sure children and teens can't access the keys or combinations to lock boxes or gun safes. And remember not to keep loaded, unlocked guns in the car, or anywhere else on your property, either.
Safe use. When using a gun for hunting or target practice, keep the safety catch in place until you are ready to fire it. Before setting the gun down, always unload it. As much as a child may want to take a turn shooting, this is not a good idea. No matter how much instruction you may give about how to safely shoot a gun, children are not capable or responsible enough to handle a potentially lethal weapon.
Keep kids safe in
More than a third of all unintentional shootings of children take place in the homes of their friends, neighbors, or relatives. That's why it is also important to make sure your kids are safe when they spend time where other people live.
Here's how to help ensure your children and their playmates do not come across an unsecured gun while they play:
Add this question to your playdate checklist. Even if you don't have guns in your own home,
ask about guns and safe storage at the other homes they visit. Just as you'd ask about pets, allergies, supervision and other safety issues before your child visits another home, add one more important question: "Is there an unlocked gun in your house?" If there is, reconsider allowing your child to play there or talk to them about keeping the guns unloaded and locked.
Talk to your children. Remind your kids that if they ever come across a gun, they must stay away from it and tell you immediately.
Guns in the media
Make sure your children understand that gun violence they may see on TV, in movies, and in video games they play at home or friends' homes is not real. They need to be told—and probably reminded again and again—that in real life, children are killed and hurt badly by guns. Although the popular
media often romanticize gun use, children need to learn that these weapons can be extremely dangerous.
About Dr. Schaechter:
Judy Schaechter, MD, MBA, FAAP, is a Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and past president of the national Injury Free Coalition for Kids. She is a past member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention Executive Committee.