Despite the controversies around guns, there is one thing I think we can agree on – no child should die from guns. While it might be hard to address many of the causes of gun violence, one thing every parent should take responsibility for is gun safety in the home, whether it is your home or someone else's that your child might visit.
Look around your child's classroom. The stats suggest that up to one in three is in a household with guns. Thus, a class of 24 would have eight children with guns in their homes. Are these stored locked and empty? Are the guns readily accessible to children? Did you know that by age 3 children have the strength to pull a trigger and that even younger children have deadly accidents with guns?
Research tells us that one half of all U.S. handgun owners keep their guns loaded at least some of the time and that 40 percent of gun owners store guns in a bedroom or closet, NOT in a locked case, cabinet, or vault. However, studies show that 75 percent of 5-14 year olds know where the guns are kept in the home – even if the parent thinks they don't.
If children have the access and means to a gun, they may act on natural curiosity or a momentary impulse that is hard to grasp by an adult's common sense. Children's pediatric brains can and will override your stern warnings to not touch the gun.
Here are healthy developmental reasons why you should either remove guns from your home or, at least, improve the safe storage of the guns-- no matter the age of your children:
Birth: Parents are already child-proofing their home from other dangers such as poisoning, burns, and falls. Invest in a gun safe or gun lock along with the baby gates and cabinet locks. Why not put it on your shower registry?
Toddler (12-24 months): Children are developing motor skills rapidly and love to walk and explore. They also love to problem solve. Therefore, figuring out how parts of a gun move can be as interesting to them as opening cabinets and drawers. However, they do not understand concept of danger and often ignore "no" or quickly forget.
Preschool/Young School Age: At this age, children have good motor development, but lack probability judgment about the consequences of actions (if-then). They are curious and can find everything in their home. This is also the age that children tend to play at their friend's homes. Thus, parents need to feel comfortable asking about the presence of guns in the homes of their child's friends and whether they are safely secured (This can be non-judgmental. Frame the question as "I have to ask everyone because my child gets into everything.")
Older School Age: These children are concrete thinkers, but still don't consider cause-and-effect very well. At this time, they are not as closely supervised and are developing some independence. Exposure to violence in the media increases and this may affect their curiosity about guns.
Adolescence: Risk-taking increases as adolescents underestimate the danger to themselves and want to explore independence. They are more likely to experience peer pressure and want to show no fear. They may perceive their peers to be carrying guns. Due to natural physiologic changes, they can have mood swings, be impulsive, more prone to settling disputes with violence, and to consider suicide as a solution.
Many children have additional risk factors beyond healthy human development. If your child is coping with challenges such as ADHD, family violence, depression, suicide ideation, drug alcohol/drug abuse, or bullying— then having guns in the home can make these lethal.
In keeping with the American Academy of Pediatrics policy, my first recommendation to my patient families is to consider removing the gun(s) from the home for the safety of their family and the reasons mentioned above. If you plan to keep guns in the home, store them unloaded and locked, with no easy access to keys, and ideally in a gun safe. Store the guns disassembled and separated from ammunition.
Click here to access a great handout from University of Michigan's Injury Center about safe gun storage options.