At Home, Cops Keep Guns at Ready

But loaded, unlocked weapons may be danger to kids, says survey

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- While they know more than most people about the harm a gun can do, law enforcement officers are twice as likely as civilians to store their weapons at home in an unsafe manner, a North Carolina survey finds.

Officers do take more care if they have young children, but the survey results still are disturbing, says lead researcher Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Some have this false belief that children are not going to touch their gun or know where it is," she says. "Officers may be very well trained in use of firearms, but their children are no different than other children who are susceptible to their own curiosity and impulsivity."

Researchers interviewed 207 officers in an unnamed Southern law-enforcement agency. Sixty percent were white and 89 percent were male.

The findings appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Eighty percent of the officers owned personal guns in addition to their service weapons, considerably more than the 35 percent to 50 percent of all Americans who own weapons, Coyne-Beasley says.

Of the officers with guns at home, 59 percent stored them unlocked, and 68 percent kept them loaded. Forty-four percent stored their guns both loaded and unlocked.

"Eighty-five percent of the officers indicated they felt an added need to protect themselves because of their work in law enforcement," Coyne-Beasley says. "Officers mentioned they'd been threatened by people they'd arrested and been seen by them in public places when they were off duty. Some mentioned they know that people they've arrested can easily find their home addresses."

But she says the officers are making a big mistake by leaving their weapons in the open. Officers should take precautions that still allow them easy access to the weapons, perhaps by using locking devices or lock boxes. "I hope they'll consider giving more time to thinking about their gun storage in their homes and how it may affect their children. I hope this study will save someone's life," she says.

But some cops don't think they need to make changes. Bill Farrar, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, kept a loaded 9-millimeter gun in his house when his children were young and made sure it was easily accessible.

"I just basically used common sense." he says. "The guns weren't where the kids could get at them. If you have a gun in the home, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have it unloaded."

Farrar says California police officers often carry weapons off duty because they are required to take action when they see a felony in progress, regardless of whether they're working at the time. "You never know what the other guy is going to have."

Many cops choose to carry their own guns because department-issued guns are too big, Farrar says. "Cops need something more convenient because it has to be concealed when you're off duty."

He says, "Any officer who's been on the job for any time at all has been threatened by someone. They'll threaten to come and harm your family. It becomes second nature for a police officer to become conscious of that sort of thing."

He says cops do support some locking devices, such as gun cabinets or lockers that cannot be opened unless a correct combination is punched into a keypad.

He says another way to prevent problems is to properly teach children. "When [mine] were old enough, I took them to the range and said, 'Here's Dad's gun, and this is what it can do.'"

What To Do

If you have children in the house, the safest thing, of course, is to lock guns and keep them unloaded. Learn more about this approach from the Common Sense about Kids and Guns organization.

The National Rifle Association also offers gun safety tips and reminds readers that locking devices may fail.

SOURCES: Interviews with Tamera Coyne-Beasley, M.D. M.P.H., assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Bill Farrar, president, San Diego Police Officers Association; August 2001 American Journal of Preventive Medicine
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