MONDAY, June 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Would your young son pick up a gun he found lying around and play with it? Though you, like many other parents, may not think so, a new study says he would.
Left alone in a room with two water pistols and a .380-caliber handgun tucked away in drawers, most of 64 young boys in the study found them, touched them, and some even pulled the trigger of the real gun once or twice.
"I was expecting the children to touch the gun and play with it somehow, but I was very surprised to see that many parents thought their child would have low interest in getting near the gun and playing with it," says study co-author Dr. Mirna Farah, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Researchers observed the boys, aged 8 to 12, through a one-way mirror to see if they would discover water pistols or a gun hidden in two drawers. They were left unsupervised in groups of two or three for up to 15 minutes.
Although many parent assumed their sons would not touch, play or pull the trigger of a gun, about three-quarters of the groups discovered and handled the real gun, and one or more members in 10 of the groups pulled the trigger.
Approximately half the boys who found the gun thought it was a toy or were unsure whether it was real. Yet, some who realized it was a real handgun played with it anyway, pulling the trigger hard enough to fire the weapon.
Many parents, questioned beforehand, underestimated their sons' interest in firearms, the study says. More than two-thirds of the boys who mom and dad thought had little interest, handled the gun.
"We see injuries in the emergency department with firearms, and we know there is some misbelief of what the children can do by the parents. Children will eagerly explore what they have found," says Farah.
And Farah says the child's age doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the outcome, based on the ages of firearm accident victims she sees in the emergency room.
Farah says, "Keep guns away from where children live and play. You should not trust any child of any age with a firearm."
A critic of the study says it was flawed by its limited size and the reasonable assumption by the kids that the hospital-testing environment was safe.
Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA) says the study is not nearly enough to convince him that firearms and children can't coexist.
The study's size "makes it unrepresentative. The setting, in the safe environment of a hospital, was artificial, and once the setting is artificial you have to question the findings," he says.
And he says the study did not determine if the gun was pointed at anyone when the trigger was pulled and whether some kids might have been afraid to admit they knew the gun was real.
"Gun safety is not a one-size-fits-all approach," says Arulanandam. "In certain households trigger locks will suffice. Others need a gun-safe or locked cabinet," but locking a gun away from a child will do little, says Arulanandam.
"It's like Christmas gifts. They'll find an ingenious way to find them, no matter the hiding place. Parents need to talk to the children and make sure they understand the responsibility that comes with owning a firearm, to educate them on firearm safety," he says.
The parent "is the best individual to gauge what is needed in their house as far as a safe mechanism to store firearms." And Arulanandam says, "It's important children are enrolled in gun safety classes."
Joanne McDaniel, acting director of the Center for Prevention of School Violence in the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, says parent-child communication is indeed the key, but it needs to start in the first few months or years.
"I don't think you can start too soon," says McDaniel. Parents and caregivers need to listen, talk and really hear each other, she says. "It's more than just asking questions. It's understanding your child and behavior patterns, being aware of their interests and watching what they do."
Farah says, "We all underestimate what our kids do, with medicines, poisons or with firearms." She says the better solution is "to remove the gun from the houses where children live."
The results of the study appear in the June 2001 issue of Pediatrics.
What To Do
Learn more about guns and how to protect your kids with the glossary of handgun and handgun safety technology from the Firearm Injury Center.
These handgun safety tips from the Baltimore county police department could save a life.
For more HealthDay stories on handguns and violence, click