Articles and Topics
Keeping Your Children Safe From Guns
Turn on the television—the news, prime-time shows, or children’s cartoons—go to the movies or to the toy store, and you’ll see that guns are a big part of our culture. Children learn the power of guns from a very young age. Most 3- to 4-year-olds can accurately imitate how to point and shoot a gun and make the accompanying shooting sounds, well before they understand the difference between real and pretend guns, safety rules, or the consequences of shooting and hurting someone.

How likely is it that your child might encounter a real gun?
The United States has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. Studies show that 30-40% of homes with children have at least one firearm either for hunting, recreation, or protection. Children may come into contact with guns in your own home; in the homes of relatives, friends, and neighbors; at child care and school; or in the community.

How common are gun-related childhood injuries?
Unfortunately, children’s encounters with guns too often end in tragedy. Every day in the United States, children are the victims of gun-related homicides, suicides, and unintentional or “accidental” gun injuries leading to approximately 40 injuries and 10 deaths among children from birth to age 19 each day. The U.S. childhood death rate from firearms is 12 times higher than the 25 other major developed countries combined.

Are your children safe?
Most unintentional childhood shooting deaths occur in or around the home—approximately half in the victim’s home, and half in the home of a friend or relative. Despite many parents’ belief that firearms are effective protection for their family, studies show that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to kill a family member or friend than an intruder.

Maybe you think your children are safe because you don’t own a gun. Or maybe you own a gun but you think your children are safe because they know the rules. Unfortunately, we often misjudge our children’s abilities. In two recent studies, young children were given a lecture by a police officer about gun safety: if they find a gun, they should not touch it; they should leave it there, and tell an adult. After the lecture, the children were left in a playroom with toys and two real, unloaded guns. Despite their recent instruction, and their parents’ confidence that their children would follow the police officer’s instructions, the majority of the children picked up the guns, played with them, and tried to fire them.

Children are naturally curious, they explore their homes and they find things. If they find a gun, their curiosity usually leads them to touch it and play with it. And they are usually strong enough and know how to pull the trigger. Most children cannot tell the difference between a toy gun and a real one, understand the safety rules, and make good decisions about handling a gun.

Most unintentional childhood shooting deaths occur when guns are not stored safely at home. Whereas most parents with young children take safety steps such as covering electrical outlets, keeping poisons out of reach, and installing smoke detectors, parents tend to be less careful about guns. A recent study found that only 42% of families with guns stored them safely—locked up, unloaded, and separate from the ammunition. This means that more than one-half of families stored their guns unsafely—unlocked, loaded, or unloaded but with the ammunition.

How can you help protect your children from gun injuries?

If you own a gun:
  • Use quality gun locks on every firearm.
  • Unload guns and lock them up.
  • Store the ammunition locked up and separate from the gun.
  • Hide the keys and combinations to the locked cabinets and safes where children cannot find them.
  • Remember, many states have implemented Child Access Prevention laws that hold adults legally responsible for children’s injuries that result from failing to store firearms safely.

Whether or not you own a gun:
  • Supervise your children closely.
  • Talk with your children about the dangers of guns.
  • Teach your children not to touch or play with guns. If they find a gun, they should not touch it, leave it there, and tell an adult. If an adult is not present, they should call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number.
  • Ask relatives, friends, neighbors, and child care homes where your children play if they have guns. If the answer is yes, ask how the guns are stored. If they are not stored safely (unloaded and locked with the ammunition locked separately), have the children play at your house or a neighborhood playground instead.

If you feel uncomfortable asking about guns, here are some suggestions:
  • Include it with other questions that you typically ask:
    What will the children be doing? Who will be supervising the children? Do the children have access to inappropriate television shows or internet sites? If they are driving, is there a car seat, booster seat or seat belt for your child? If your child has allergies, do they have pets to which your child is allergic, or can they be sure to avoid giving your child the food to which he’s allergic?
  • Be respectful and calm, and share the facts:
    Reassure them that this is just something that you routinely ask—it’s nothing personal and you don’t mean to pass any judgment or be disrespectful. Simply explain that children are naturally curious and get into things. Knowing that many homes have guns, you need to make sure your child is safe.

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Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician