Gun sitting in electronic safe The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the safest home for a child is one without guns. It’s the most effective way to prevent accidental or intentional gun injuries and deaths in children and adolescents.

However, statistics paint a far different reality:

  • In 1 in 3 homes with children, an adult owns a gun.
  • In 1 in 2 homes with guns, an adult keeps at least one weapon unlocked.
  • In 1 in 4 homes with guns, an adult keeps at least one weapon unlocked and loaded – ready to fire.

Even when guns are hidden in the home, 75% of youth aged 5-14 know where the weapons are kept and can easily access them. While weapons in the home can be dangerous for all youth, for adolescents and teens there’s an added risk – intentional self-harm, says Dorothy R. Novick, MD, a pediatrician at CHOP Primary Care, South Philadelphia.

“One of the scariest statistics? A person who attempts suicide with a firearm has a 90% chance of completing the act,” Dr. Novick says. Compare that to the same person who attempts suicide using a different method, such as swallowing pills: Less than 4% will succeed in killing themselves.

Gun violence is a national epidemic and the second leading cause of death for adolescents (aged 10-14), and teens and young adults (aged 15-24), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. When coupled with the suicide risk among this vulnerable age group – in 2016, the CDC’s Fatal Injury Reports indicated more than 2,500 youth age 19 or younger committed suicide – this is a considerable health risk that should be recognized and addressed.

Protecting our teens and children

So, how can parents keep their teens and children safer, while retaining access to weapons they may need for their job, or want for their hobby or protection?

Many parents rely on two primary methods:

  • Teaching kids not to touch firearms, and/or
  • Teaching them how to properly handle a weapon.

While both are worthy goals, studies show they are not effective enough to keep children safe.

“We’ve learned that even the most trustworthy children often don’t stay away from guns. They’re just so curious,” Dr. Novick says. “Older children and teens may have different reasons for seeking out a weapon – to impress friends, to protect themselves from a bully, or to take their own lives. The results can be devastating.”

To reduce the risk of a child being injured by a weapon in the home, safer storage of any firearm is a must. Storage options include:

  • A traditional gun safe, which offers storage for multiple long guns and rifles, as well as handguns. The safe may be secured with a combination, key lock or fingerprint.
  • A lock box, with a key or combination lock, for smaller weapons like handguns.
  • A cable lock, which can work for long or short-barrel weapons. The cable goes through the weapon and prevents it from being fired by blocking the barrel or use of ammunition. One of the safety benefits of cable locks is that the ammunition must be removed before the lock can be secured.
  • A trigger lock, though widely available, is less secure because if used with a loaded firearm, it can still allow the weapon to fire accidentally.

No matter which locking option your family chooses, it’s important to remember three important rules:

  • Always store the weapon unloaded.
  • Store ammunition separately from the weapon – and also locked up.
  • The location of the key or combination should only be known by adults in the house.

Don’t forget to also secure other weapons – such as BB guns, pellet guns and paintball guns. Though these weapons are traditionally not intended to kill, they are a consistent source of injuries in youth.

These weapons also pose an additional risk to children and teens: your child may think they are just playing, but to a passerby or police officer who sees the weapon, it may appear real.

Safety rules

While your family has control over what happens in your house and how firearms are stored, you don’t have the same control at your friends’ homes or the homes of your child’s friends. More than a third of all unintentional shootings of youth occur in the homes of friends, neighbors or relatives. Dr. Novick offers a few guidelines for parents.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions when your child is visiting a friend’s house. Ask about unlocked weapons in the same way you would ask about other potential safety hazards such as driving, bike helmets and parental supervision during teen gatherings. If there are unlocked weapons in the home, ask the parent to secure the weapon while your child is there, or suggest an alternate location for a visit.

Encourage your teen to be wary of all weapons and not to handle them without adult supervision and permission.

All children should be taught some basic weapon safety. Even if your child is never exposed to guns, they can still benefit from learning gun safety to better protect themselves and those around them.

A few basic rules to share with your adolescent or teen:

  • Don’t ever – not just once – play with a real weapon. It is not a toy or a prize.
  • Always assume a weapon is loaded.
  • Never point a weapon directly at someone or put your hand on the trigger. You don’t know if the gun is loaded or not – and neither will anyone else.

Why adolescents are most at-risk of gun injuries

Today’s youth have a better understanding of how deadly guns and weapons can be, compared to their counterparts 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately, they’ve grown up hearing about mass shootings across the nation and see gun violence on the TV, internet and on social media. Too many have been personally affected by gun violence.

Yet, all this knowledge does not improve their impulse control.

“The frontal lobe of our brains is still forming until our early 20s,” Dr. Novick says. “So, even the most book-smart teen often has poor impulse control. Suicide attempts in teens can be very impulsive and when they have access to lethal weapons like guns, the result is far more likely to be deadly.”

Seek help if needed

If you are concerned about your teen or adolescent’s exposure to weapons, talk to your child’s doctor. They can help you and your teen discuss the circumstances openly, find potential solutions to minimize your teen’s exposure to weapons, and get additional training or education if needed.

Resources for families

Expert consultation provided by: Dorothy R. Novick, MD

Dorothy R. Novick, MD, is a pediatrician at CHOP Primary Care, South Philadelphia, a CHOP Care Network pediatric and adolescent care practice. She is a practice-based scholar with CHOP’s Center for Violence Prevention.

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