TUESDAY, Feb. 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- If you're among the estimated 35 percent of American families that own firearms, consider keeping your guns locked up or unloaded.
Either practice can lower the odds that a child or teenager will accidentally injure themselves with the gun, or use it to commit suicide, by 70 percent or more, new research finds.
The study, appearing in the Feb. 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that four gun storage practices reduce the risk of accidental gun injuries or suicide. They are: keeping a gun locked; storing the gun unloaded; locking up the ammunition; and storing the gun and ammunition separately.
"If a family chooses to keep a gun in the home, any one of these practices has a very high protective value -- similar to the protective effect of wearing a seatbelt," said study co-author Dr. David Grossman, medical director of preventive care at Group Health Cooperative in Seattle. Grossman was director of the Harborview Injury Prevention Center at the time of the study.
More than one in three U.S. households with children under 18 have at least one firearm, according to the study. Of those households, nearly half keep at least one gun unlocked.
More than 1,000 US children between the ages of 1 and 20 died from gun suicide in 2002, and 190 youngsters were killed by accidental gunshot wounds that same year, reports an editorial in the same issue of the journal.
Grossman and his colleagues gathered information on 106 cases where a child or teenager shot himself or herself, or accidentally shot someone else. All of the cases were from Washington, Oregon or Missouri. Homicides were not included in this analysis, nor were shootings with BB guns or air guns.
Eighty-two cases were suicide attempts using a firearm -- 95 percent of these were successful. Twenty-four were accidental shootings, of which 52 percent proved fatal.
They also randomly selected 480 households with both children and firearms in the home from the same geographical location for comparison. Control households were matched to case households by age and county.
The researchers found the most protective means of preventing firearm injury, either accidental or intentional, was to lock up guns or keep them unloaded. Keeping a gun unloaded reduced the odds of death by 70 percent, while locking the gun reduced the odds by 73 percent.
Keeping ammunition locked reduced the odds of unintentional gun injury or suicide by 61 percent, and keeping guns separate from the ammunition lowered the odds by 55 percent.
Some might argue that teens bent on killing themselves would find another means if a gun wasn't readily available, but Grossman said he doubts that's the case.
"Teen suicide tends to be very impulsive. The ratio of attempts to completion is much higher than for adults. The level of intent is not as high and is very transitory. The urge can dissipate quickly. There's reason to believe that storing weapons safely can have a real impact on teen suicide," said Grossman.
Previous research supports this assertion.
"Laws requiring gun owners to safely store their guns away from children -- generally requiring locking them up -- were associated with an 11 percent decrease in the rate of firearm suicide among teens ages 14 to 17 and an 8 percent decline in suicides by any method within this age group," Daniel Webster, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said of his study in the Aug. 4 issue of the journal.
One reason locking up guns is so effective in preventing deaths is that unlocked, easily accessible firearms are nearly always lethal when used for suicide, according to Webster.
"The odds of killing yourself with pills or slashing wrists are relatively low, whereas more than 90 percent of self-inflicted gunshot wounds are lethal," he said.
Getting people to change their gun storage habits might not be so easy, however.
"It's difficult to convince some people who keep guns principally for protection that their family is far more likely to have an undesired event with a gun -- accidental shootings, suicide, domestic homicide -- than they are to face an intruder who could only be deterred from killing them by an armed victim. But that is the reality," Webster said.
Also, he added, "Gun owners deny that their kids might someday be suicidal and believe falsely that children and teens will follow their directives not to handle guns without supervision."
Grossman suggests that those concerned about using their guns for protection should invest in a lock box with a push button lock that can be accessed quickly in case of an emergency. He said trigger locks may also be effective, but suspects that a lock box that keeps the gun completely out of sight may be even more effective.
To learn more about teens and guns, go to the National Youth Violence Resource Prevention Center.