TUESDAY, June 21, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- When arranging their child's next play date, American parents may want to ask if there are any unlocked guns in the prospective playmate's home.
The reason: almost 2 million American homes with kids contain unlocked, loaded guns, experts say, and dozens of kids die each year from unintentional shootings.
That's why the Center to Prevent Youth Violence (PAX) has joined forces with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to designate June 21 "National ASK Day."
The goal is to protect children from accidental shooting injuries or even death by encouraging parents to find out whether or not guns are present in homes where their kids play.
"If your child is going to someone else's home to play you're entrusting that other parent to be the provider," noted Dr. Beth Ebel, an AAP spokesperson and a member of the organization's council on injury, violence, and poison prevention. "And just as it's important to go over food rules, allergies, pets, whether the friend's parents are going to be at home or not, it's equally important for a parent to know if there is a gun in a home and if it's safely stored and locked."
Griffin Dix wholeheartedly agrees, with a passion rooted in family tragedy.
"It was May, 1994, and I was living in Berkeley, California," Dix recalls. "And my son one Sunday afternoon went to the home of a good high school friend. And without telling my son, the boy suddenly decided to show off his father's gun, which was kept loaded and unlocked next to the father's bed for protection."
"The boy knew a little bit about guns," Dix noted. "He had actually shot this gun once at the shooting range. So he knew how to take out the loaded ammunition clip, and he put an empty one into the gun, and thought it was then unloaded. But semi-automatic handguns can have a bullet still in the chamber, which the boy didn't know. And he pulled the trigger, thinking it would make an impressive click. The bullet went through my son's shoulder, and into his heart, and killed him."
Dix's son, Kenzo Dix, was just 15 years old.
"It was devastating for all of us -- including for the boy, who of course had no intention of shooting my son. And of course he had been told not to touch his father's gun. But kids sometimes disobey their parents and make foolish choices. And I think it's really up to parents that when children make foolish choices it doesn't end in death. Because a gun is made to take a life, and it will."
Gun ownership is very common, noted Ebel, who is also an associate professor in the departments of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Now certainly, gun owners are almost all good people who care for their kids and try and do the right thing. So you might not have thought to ask this question. But really it should be considered routine to ask about a home's gun situation in the context of discussing all the other things that are important to you when your child goes elsewhere to play."
PAX initially launched the "National ASK Day" campaign back in 2000, spurred by research suggesting that 40 percent of American households with children keep guns in the home.
For its part, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence -- a Washington, DC- based national gun safety advocacy group -- notes that the presence of a gun in the house significantly raises the risk of a shooting accident. In fact, the group says household guns are four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting than for purposes of self-defense.
The Brady Campaign also points out that about half of gun-owning households do not lock up their firearms. According to the AAP, this means that roughly 1.7 million American children under the age of 18 currently reside in households where guns are kept both unlocked and loaded.
About two-thirds of unintentional shootings take place in the home, according to 2007 data from the National Violent Death Reporting System. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) statistics from the same year also show that more than 600 people of all ages were killed during an unintentional shooting -- 138 of them below the age of 19.
Finally, NCIPC statistics from 2009 find that "roughly 18,600 Americans of all ages were wounded survivors of an unintentional shooting," the Brady Campaign says.
However, the ASK campaign may be making headway against these grim statistics. The Center for Youth Violence officials says that in the decade since they began the initiative, they have gotten about two million more households agreeing to ask the gun status question. The organization has also found that guns are now the number one play-date concern among 19 percent of parents, up from just five percent when the campaign was launched.
"I view this as a basic parenting issue," said Ebel. "Of course, I'm also a pediatrician, and I work at a large trauma center, and so I've seen and cared for kids when things go terribly wrong. But primarily, I view this as something that responsible parents should want to know about and have a conversation about."
"Because," she continued, "simply telling your child not to touch a gun, while not a bad idea, is not likely effective enough. Kids are curious and impulsive. So you really want to know what the situation is where they are playing, so you can decide what is best for your child. And I'm happy to say that we've found that nearly all parents who own a gun understand this, and say they are not uncomfortable if asked about the presence of a gun by another parent."
Dix, who has worked with both PAX and the Brady Campaign, agrees that the ASK campaign is invaluable. "Guns in the home increase the risk of homicide by three and the risk of suicide by five, compared with homes that don't have guns," he said. "And this is now the beginning of the summer, and many kids will be spending a lot of time at others people's homes. So parents should be thinking to ask about whether there are guns in the home and how they are stored. I wish I had. It is certainly a matter of life and death."
For more on the ASK campaign, visit the Center to Prevent Youth Violence.