Guest blogging along with regular contributor Mario Cruz, MD, is Emmanuelle Topiol, MD a pediatric resident at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children.
Imagine this: You are sending your 8-year-old child to his friend's house for the first time. To make sure that he is safe, you ask his friend's parents: "Who will be supervising the children? What will the kids be doing? What kinds of food will they eat (let's assume your child has a food allergy!)?" Pause for a second, did you ever think to ask, "Is there an unlocked gun in the home?" While this question might seem awkward at first, it is a simple, common-sense method of protecting your child from an unnecessary injury.
The importance of asking this question is the main message of national "ASK day" (ASK = Asking Saves Kids) this Saturday, a campaign to reduce the number of children (1.7 million) living in homes with an unlocked, loaded weapon. Each of these children is at risk for being seriously injured.
Every day, nine children are accidentally shot by a firearm. Typically, a curious child discovers a loaded weapon, and inadvertently shoots themself, a friend, or a family member. In other cases, a depressed adolescent will discover the weapon, and use it to commit suicide. Often, gun-owning parents who have suffered the loss of a child due to an accidental shooting have one of three responses: 1)"I didn't think he knew where it was," 2) "How did he even know how to use it?" 3) "But he was trained in gun safety".
Fortunately, these tragedies are preventable. As pediatricians, we agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy statement, recommending that firearms be kept out of any home with a child. However, we must realistically acknowledge that many gun-owning parents wouldn't feel safe without a weapon in their home. In these cases, the next best solution is to keep the firearm locked and unloaded, with the ammunition safely stored separately. That may sound overly cautious, but remember that four out of five children with guns in their home know exactly where to find at least one of those weapons. Kids are smarter than we think. If your 3-year-old child can unlock a smart phone and open up their favorite app, surely an 8-year-old will be able find and then shoot a loaded handgun.
It's not enough to teach kids about gun safety, firearms must remain inaccessible to children. Here are two powerful examples of what can happen when a child finds and then plays with an unlocked, loaded weapon:
If someone says "Yes, there is an unlocked weapon in the house, but it's hidden away", or something similar, we recommend asking that person to lock away the weapon, at least while your child is there.
You could say, "I know that I might sound a little paranoid, but I just want to make sure that my child is safe. He's really curious and I'm worried that he'll be able to find it. It would really make me feel much better if the weapon was locked away, at least while my son is at your house. I recently read an article about how easy it is for children to find and play with guns." Not only will you keep your child safe by doing this, but you've just raised awareness about an important public health issue.
So next time your child plays at a friend, neighbor or relative's home, don't forget to ASK: "Is there an unlocked gun in the home?"