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Is There a Gun Where Your Child Plays?

It was our teen who first told me that the parents of one of his friends keep a handgun in their family home '‘for protection'’. I did not react well.

As far as I know, our son did not come into contact with the gun. And knowing the parents as well as I do, I expect that their handgun is stored ‘safely’. But unless I am willing to ask some rather awkward questions I cannot know for sure.

One Third of US Households with Children Possess Guns

Research indicates that one third of US households with children under 18 possess guns. 'Nearly 2 million US children live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms. The home is the primary place from which young people obtain firearms that are used in unintentional and violent injuries, as well as a primary setting in which pediatric injuries, especially suicides, take place.'

And as those children move from childhood to adolescence, parents are likely to be less vigilant in the way they store those firearms. A national random survey of nearly 400 parents in the United States found 'of gun-owning Americans with children under age 18, 21.7 percent stored a loaded gun, 31.5 percent stored one unlocked, and 8.3 percent stored at least one gun unlocked and loaded. And in households with adolescents ages 13 to 17, firearms were left unlocked 41.7 percent of the time.'

Parents appear to underestimate the dangers posed by the presence of firearms once their children become teens, despite the fact that most youth firearm injuries happen to adolescents.  A comprehensive investigation conducted by the New York Times into accidental shooting deaths of children found 13-14-year-olds made up the largest number of accidental firearm deaths for children, with 12-year-olds and 3-year-olds achieving the dubious distinction of tying for third place.

According to this investigation, three is thought to be a particularly vulnerable age as “children are curious and old enough to manipulate a firearm but ignorant of the dangers.”

Why Gun Safety Campaigns Aimed at Children Don’t Work

The gun lobby continues to rail against safe storage of firearms laws (or technological innovations that would make guns safer), instead advocating that children participate in gun safety programs that teach children if they see a gun to [stop, don’t touch, leave the area and tell an adult'. However, a 2001 study in the journal, Pediatrics, shows just how ineffective such approaches are:
Researchers watched through a one-way mirror as pairs of boys ages 8 to 12 were left alone in an examination room at a clinic in Atlanta. Unknown to the children, an inoperative .38-caliber handgun was concealed in a cabinet drawer.

Playing and exploring over the next 15 minutes, one boy after another – three-quarters of the 64 children – found the gun. Two-thirds handled it, and one-third actually pulled the trigger. Just one child went to tell an adult about the gun, and he was teased by his peers for it. More than 90 percent of the boys said they had had some gun safety instruction.”

The Elephant in the Room: Guns and Play Dates

During my time in the US I have never been asked by another parent about the presence of firearms in my home. And my own clumsy attempts to introduce the topic into conversation have been met with astonishment. How could this be an issue in our neighbourhood?

Today I asked my children’s pediatrician for his perspective. In some ways I was reassured. He says that few parents answer yes to the question he asks at every well-child visit: do you have guns in your home? But in recent years he has observed a slight upswing in the number of parents answering yes. So while it is indeed true that in our liberal communit y– in a state with perhaps the tightest gun laws in the country – guns are less of an issue than they are for the country as a whole, reports provided by my own children have made me realise that complacency is not an option.

The Gun Safe Mom campaign addresses this complacency head on, advising parents: “You may know you live in an area where sportsman and women frequent. You may think that you live in a safe suburban community where gun violence is minimal except for the occasional ‘accident’. You may think that your values and safety standards translate in the attitudes of those families with whom your child socializes. PLEASE ASSUME NOTHING. Gun accessibility is a topic most of us have not discussed with our closest friends. No matter your race, religion, geographic location, or ethnicity, gun ownership crosses all lines. Your child’s safety can depend on your willingness to address gun accessibility in the places your child plays.”

The lack of dialogue between parents about the presence of guns in the home is made more surprising in light of the extreme level of vigilance seen by American parents in relation to other potential dangers.  This is not a nation that takes child safety lightly.