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Gunning for Trouble

Parents leave loaded guns where kids can get them

TUESDAY, May 2 (HealthScout) -- They buckle up their children with seatbelts. They install smoke detectors, keep electrical outlets covered and make their kids wear bicycle helmets.

But a new study says these same loving and protective parents fail in one key area of safety: They keep a loaded gun unlocked in their homes.

"The safest way to avoid a firearm injury in the home is to remove guns from the home," says study author Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley, assistant professor of community pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

"If you must keep a gun there, the safest thing to do is to unload the weapon and keep it locked up. Then keep the ammunition locked up, too, and stored separately from the gun."

Coyne-Beasley and her colleagues surveyed 286 parents with children under age 7 who visited a hospital emergency room for "non-urgent" conditions. The researchers found that 99 percent of the parents had a smoke alarm, 72 percent capped electrical outlets and 72 percent kept poisonous substances out of children's reach.

But of the 94 people who said they owned a gun, nearly half said they kept their firearms loaded, and 57 percent stored their guns in an unlocked compartment, such as a closet or a drawer.

"That surprised me because … I hypothesized that people who exercised good, general safety habits would also probably have good firearms-safety habits," Coyne-Beasley says.

The study was presented yesterday at the Ambulatory Pediatric Association meeting in Baltimore.

In 1998, 5,566 children and young adults under age 21 died of gunshot wounds; 1,801 were suicides, and 324 were unintentional deaths, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recent statistics show that from 75 percent to 85 percent of guns used in adolescent suicide attempts and accidental shootings came from the homes of the victims, or the homes of relatives or friends.

About 35 percent of U.S. households own at least one gun, and about one-third of the weapons are stored loaded and unlocked in the home, says the National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms.

Many say guns make a home safer

Alice Hausman, professor of health studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, urges parents to check with the parents of their children's friends to find out if and where they keep guns in their homes.

"It can be a real conversation killer, but you should ask," Hausman says. "Keeping a gun accessible and loaded is just asking for trouble."

Many Americans think owning a gun, and keeping it loaded and unlocked, makes their homes safer, reports a Gallup poll conducted last year. Nearly 60 percent of gun owners said a firearm makes a house safer; less than 30 percent of non-gun owners agreed.

"Parents actually think they are protecting their children," Coyne-Beasley says. "Most people believe when you have a gun for protection you want to have it easily accessible so when an intruder comes into the house, you can quickly grab it and use it. But they don't realize when you have it accessible to you, it's also accessible to your children."

And because they have taught their children not to touch the gun, many parents believe kids will do as they are told. Studies have shown that even children who know they're not supposed to touch a gun still do.

"Children just don't follow the rules all the time," Coyne-Beasley says. "And small children, with their natural curiosity, often can't tell the difference between a toy gun and a real gun. They don't understand the consequences of using a gun, and they don't understand the concept of death.

"And an adolescent may be impulsive, angry or depressed. It's really consistent with child development."

In the study, nearly half the parents also said they didn't store their guns with a trigger lock or gun lock. Coyne-Beasley says the safety mechanisms are made by many manufacturers and have varying degrees of effectiveness.

"Gun locks should be used as an adjunct to storing a gun in a locked compartment, such as a safe," she says. "I would never advocate putting a gun lock on and putting it on a shelf."

What To Do

For tips on keeping your children safe from guns, visit the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, or Common Sense About Kids and Guns.

Or check these other HealthScout stories about guns.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tamera Coyne-Beasley, M.D., assistant professor of community pediatrics and internal medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Medicine; Alice Hausman, Ph.D., professor of health studies, Temple University
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