This week in Washington state, a young boy brought a gun to elementary school and an 8 year old girl was shot. The reports say the gun was in his backpack when it went off, but to me this brings up the controversial question: Should we ask about guns at home? Why did the 9 year old feel the need to bring a gun to school? But an even bigger question is where did he get the gun from? In Washington, nearly all pediatricians routinely ask if there is a gun in the home during well child exams. This question is not to judge a family, but merely to bring up the idea of safety. Washington state actually has very loose gun laws and locks are not legally required. As kids grow into teens, we pediatricians often omit this question on guns for ones on sex and drugs. Should we keep asking about gun safety?

I grew up in Alaska, the last frontier. Most people hunt and fish as a way of life. Hobbies include weapons like rifles, shot guns, archery: all lethal.  Guns in the home, where I grew up, are a norm (we had a handgun, rifle, and archery equipment), but so were gun accidents and completed suicides from firearms. I can recall the first time a neighbor ended their life with a firearm; I was about 10 years old and it was the father of a friend. This was definitely not the last time someone close to my family died because of a gun. I later had a friend end his life by using a hand gun. A younger friend ended another persons’ life during an argument.  Jen Brown RN, my co-writer, had a good friend lose her 12-year-old brother to suicide by shotgun.

People who have guns at home may have them for various reasons. Perhaps the family goes hunting regularly, or they may have the gun in the home for a sense of protection. If the gun is safely stored, in a locked box with a trigger lock and the ammunition in a locked box separate, it will be very difficult to use in case of an ‘emergency.’ Due to the potential danger of firearms, 27 states actually have laws governing how to keep them safely stored at home. Why do states have these safety laws? Consider some facts about guns:

  1. The CDC reports that for 5-9 year old age group, homicide is the #4 cause of death, with firearms being the number 1 way those kids are murdered.
  2. For the teens ages 10-14, homicide is the #4 and suicide the #3 leading cause of death. Most of those youth die from firearms.
  3. In older teens and young adults ages 15-24, homicide and suicide are the number 2 and 3 leading causes of death with firearms being the number one source of suicide and number 2 source of homicide.
  4. Homicides killed 16, 799 people in 2009; 11, 493 were from firearms ( about 70%)

So why are children, teens, and young adults dying from guns?

Children, especially teens, are impulsive. This is part of their normal brain development. They often act without thinking through consequences and react strongly to emotions that occur in the moment. Our brains are not finished developing until our mid 20’s so this lack of  impulse control can continue well into the young adult years. Lack of impulse control added to strong emotions can quickly lead to suicide or homicide when guns are added. Guns (unlike pills, suffocation, stabbing, or slitting the wrists) are much more likely to be lethal with the first shot.

So, here are some questions for parents to consider:

Should I keep a gun at home if I have children?  The answer to that is a very personal one, but I would challenge parents to think of the risks and benefits before jumping to a conclusion. If having a gun in the home increases the chance of death by homicide or suicide, do you want to take that risk?

If I have guns at home, are they safely stored? Are combinations to safes kept secret? Are keys stored where kids and teens cannot easily find them? It is very hard to keep a secret from a child or teen! (Think of all the Christmas gifts that weren’t surprises because the kids found them)

If you and your family enjoy shooting, can you keep the firearms stored away from the home? Can you go to a shooting range and use one of the weapons there for the experience and practice?

Does my teen hang out with friends who have guns at home? What kind of safety precautions have their parents taken? Is the gun locked, unloaded, with ammunition stored separately? Do the kids in the home know about gun safety?

Does my teen know what to do if they discover there is a gun in the home of a friend? Do they know who to talk to if a friend discloses they are considering bringing a gun to school?

The Constitution provides US citizens with the right to bear arms, and I am not discounting this in the least. But when considering having a gun at home, especially if you are a parent or regularly have children and teens coming to visit, weigh the risks and benefits. Look over the facts about homicide, suicide, and even the safety of your neighborhood and community before making a decision that could be the difference between life and death.

To answer the question I asked at the beginning of the post: Should pediatricians continue to ask about gun safety?  I feel the answer is yes. This question opens the door to having a conversation about safety and conversation is a great tool for helping parents make decisions about their family.