Up to a third of gun-related suicides and unintentional deaths among American children and teens could be prevented if more of the adults living with them simply stored all of their firearms safely, according to a study published online Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
Safe storage means locking up the guns unloaded and storing the ammunition in a separate location — also under lock and key.
The take-home message of the study, write its authors, is that “a relatively modest uptake of a straightforward recommendation to lock all household firearms is likely to result in meaningful reductions in firearm suicide and unintentional firearm fatalities among youth.”
The study also underscores the need to “further develop and test approaches that will more effectively motivate parents to store firearms safely,” the researchers say.
Second-leading cause of death
As background information in the study points out, less than a third of gun-owning adults who live with children report storing their guns unloaded and locked up. Surveys have also revealed that few gun owners understand how risky it is to not store guns safely, particularly for the children in their household.
Many parents mistakenly (and often tragically) believe that their child either doesn’t know where firearms are kept in the home or would never use a gun without permission.
Yet, gunshot-related wounds claim the lives of about 3,000 children and adolescents in the United States each year, making it the second-leading cause of death (behind motor vehicle accidents) among young people aged 1 to 19.
More American youth die of injuries from firearms each year than of cancer.
Most of those gun-related deaths are the result of homicides, but about one in three are suicides. Another 5 percent are unintentional deaths.
Research has shown that the presence of a gun in a home greatly increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death.
How the study was done
The authors of the current study — researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital, the T. H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University — wanted to determine how many deaths of young people could be prevented by even a modest increase in safe household firearm storage.
To conduct their study, the researchers used household data on firearm ownership and storage for 2015. That year was chosen because it was the most recent one for which several key data sources were available. (Data on gun violence is difficult to obtain, primarily because of the 1996 Dickey amendment, which has had the effect of greatly limiting federal funding for research that might lead to any form of gun control.)
The data revealed that 13 million households with children contained firearms in 2015. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 14,000 children and adolescents were treated for nonfatal firearm injuries that year. Those injuries resulted in 2,800 deaths, including more than 1,100 by either suicide or an unintentional firearm injury.
Other research has shown that 90 percent of the guns used in youth suicides come from the young person’s own home. Similarly, 90 percent of the guns involved in the unintentional death of children and adolescents come from the home of the victim — or from the home of the victim’s relative or friend.
Using all this data, the authors of the JAMA Pediatrics study conducted a Monte Carlo simulation to determine how the gun-related death rate for young people might have been different in 2015 if more adults had simply locked up their guns.
The simulation found that if 10 percent more households with children and teenagers had locked up their guns in 2015, 50 more young people would be alive today. If 20 percent more households had done so, 99 young people’s deaths would have been prevented. And if 50 percent more households had locked up their guns, 251 children and teens would still be alive.
“Saving lives through promoting safer storage has great, but as yet unrealized, potential,” the researchers conclude.
Limitations and implications
The study has several limitations. To begin with, the data it used on the relationship between gun-storage practices and the risk of firearm injuries among young people come from a single study conducted more than 15 years ago. In addition, although locking up firearms may prevent gun-related suicide, it may not keep young people from using a different method to end their lives.
Other research, including a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, has found, however, a strong relationship between household gun ownership and the rate of youth suicide across states. When young people don’t have easy access to guns, they are less likely to take their own lives — by any method.
As one of the authors of that study told reporters for The Atlantic magazine, “Suicide among youth can be an impulsive behavior. If you can get past that moment of time, you can have a change of mood. Other methods are not as quick or lethal [as guns].”
Furthermore, as the authors of the JAMA Pediatrics study point out, their estimates regarding the number of young lives that could be saved by locking up guns are most likely conservative. That’s because they looked at only one aspect of safe-firearm storage.
“Locking firearms is not the only way to reduce the risk of injury from household firearms,” they explain. Keeping all guns unloaded and locking away ammunition offer additional safety benefits — and would likely save additional lives.
Of course, as the American Academy of Pediatrics advises, “the safest home for a child is one without guns.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for JAMA Pediatrics, but the full study is behind a paywall.