Guns in the Home --
Helping Parents Understand the Risks
Mary Larew, MD
University of Iowa Children’s Hospital
Intentional injuries are a significant cause of
mortality in children and youth 10 to 19 years
In the 10 to 14 year age-range, suicide is
the third most common cause of death in the United
States and homicide the fourth. Of 15 to 19 year
olds, homicide is the second most common cause of
death and suicide is the third.
Minority males bear a disproportionate burden of
intentional injury: homicide is the leading cause
of death in African-American male teens and young
Firearms are the most successful agent used in
suicide and homicide.
Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to
the devastation of firearms. They sustained 41
percent of all firearm deaths and injuries in
The United States has the unenviable position of
having the highest rate of firearm deaths compared
to 25 other industrialized nations. In fact, the
rate for U.S. children younger than 15 was almost
12 times higher than for the same aged children in
the other 25 countries combined.
suggest there are approximately 90 guns for every
100 people in the United States and one-third to
one-half of U.S. homes contain firearms.
Although some use firearms for hunting, the
primary reason given for gun ownership is
protection of self and family. Paradoxically,
these guns are many times more likely to cause
injury or death to those living in the home—up to
43 times more likely in some reports. A recent
study by the Harvard Injury Control Research
Center states, “The opportunity for a law-abiding
gun owner to use a gun in a socially desirable
manner—against a criminal during the commission of
a crime—will occur…perhaps once or never in a
lifetime. It is a rare event.”
The risk of homicide increases by 40 to 170
percent and suicide by 90 to 460 percent in a home
containing guns. Over three-fourths of guns used
in suicide attempts and unintentional injuries of
0 to 19 year-olds were stored in the residence of
the victim, a relative, or a friend. Nearly
two-thirds of 37 school shootings in 26 states
were committed by an attacker who got the gun from
his or her own home or the home of a relative.
Parents often think that young children don’t know
the location of guns in the home or can’t use
them. However, children as young as three can fire
handguns. In fact, 8 percent of unintentional
shooting deaths result from shots fired by
children under the age of six.
In addition, parents believe teaching children not
to touch guns protects them from harming
themselves or others. In one study, groups of boys
ages 8 to 12 were put in a room
with a hidden gun. Many found the gun,
handled it, and over half pulled the
trigger. Of those that handled the gun or
pulled the trigger, more than 90 percent
previously had gun safety instruction.
Many consider non-powder firearms, such as BB
guns, air guns, pellet guns, and paintball guns,
much less dangerous than handguns, rifles, etc.
However, non-powder firearms have become more
powerful and accurate, increasingly able to
inflict serious injuries and even death.
Non-powder guns injured more than 25,000 people in
2006, most of them 19 years old or younger.
These alarming statistics emphasize the need for
US health care providers to address the
substantial danger that guns pose to patients. The
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises
parents not to own a gun. For those who chose to
have a gun in the home, to the right are some suggestions
for ensuring a safe environment.
Gun Safety in the Home
Take the ammunition out of the
Lock the gun and keep it out of
reach of kids.
Lock the ammunition and store it
apart from the
Store the keys for the gun and
the ammunition in a different area
from where you store household
keys. Keep the keys out of reach
Lock up gun-cleaning supplies,
which are often
Discuss gun safety with other
of friends if your child spends
in their homes.
The AAP also understands the importance of
addressing the underlying causes of violence and
recently released a policy statement. (“Role of
the Pediatrician in Youth Violence Prevention,”
Pediatrics Vol. 124 No. 1 July 2009, 393-402).
This statement refers to Connected Kids: Safe,
Strong, Secure, the AAP’s primary care violence
prevention protocol, which incorporates risk
screening and strength-based anticipatory guidance
during routine well visits, from birth to
adulthood. It also encourages those caring for
children to advocate at the community and national
level to promote adequate mental health services,
protect children from exposure to violent media
and guns, and decrease bullying.
Through all these efforts, there is hope for a
less violent and healthier future for our children