WEDNESDAY, Aug. 9, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Parents with small children usually store firearms safely enough in the home, but that's not always the case when their kids are teens, U.S. researchers report.
"It seems that parents are more concerned about gun safety when they have really young kids and aren't that concerned when they have older kids," explained lead researcher Renee M. Johnson, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston.
Parents seem to believe that older children are old enough to act responsibly and use good judgment, Johnson said.
Statistics show that about one-third of American households with children also contain guns, and many gun injuries among children take place in the home. Earlier studies have found that while safe storage practices can reduce the risk of gun-linked injury or suicide, 14 percent to 30 percent of people with guns keep at least one firearm fully loaded. In addition, about 43 percent store one gun in an unlocked place.
Overall, about 2 million U.S. children may live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms, the researchers said.
Their study suggests the danger varies according to children's age, however.
"We found that parents of older kids had less safe firearms practices and had their firearms stored in a manner that is easy to get to," Johnson said. "For example, parents of adolescents were more likely to have their firearms stored unlocked and loaded than if there were younger kids in the house," she said.
Johnson said noted that a significant number of U.S. teens die each year from gun injury. "Adolescents are more likely to die from firearm injury and suicide," she said. "And a lot of kids are getting guns from the home."
The report was published in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In the study, Johnson's team questioned nearly 400 parents who kept firearms in their homes. The researchers asked about attitudes and beliefs about guns, ownership and storage practices.
They found that 22 percent kept a loaded gun, 31.5 percent had an unlocked gun, and 8.3 percent had an unlocked, loaded gun.
In just over 28 percent of homes, all the children were between 13 to 17 years of age, and these were the homes with the highest rates of unsafe gun-storage practices. For example, 42 percent of these homes contained an unlocked gun, compared with about 29 percent of homes with children 12 years of age or younger.
"Parents are concerned about their younger kids, but forget about the older kids," Johnson said. "They just aren't thinking about the risks."
One expert said too many U.S. homes have guns, and, in many cases, accidents are just waiting to happen.
"The notion that a gun in the home is useful for self-defense in the advent of an intrusion is belied by the data," said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "A gun is 40 times more likely to injure its owner or a member of the household than it is to be used in warding off an intruder," he said.
Far too many homes in which children of any age live have the unnecessary hazard of an accessible gun, Katz said. "Ideally, fewer people would own guns. Nearly as good is having all gun owners store their firearms unloaded and locked," he said.
Find out more about teens and guns at the National Youth Violence Resource Prevention Center.