If you have children who have friends whose parents are gun owners, this article will be of interest. Many parents are concerned that something tragic may occur while their children are playing with friends who live in homes with guns. This concern is growing, particularly as we watched with empathy as classes resumed for the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Visions of last month's massacre in Newtown that left 20 first-graders and six educators dead remains embedded in our minds.
Many of us are amazed at how many guns there are in the U.S. and, ironically, the vast majority of firearms are purchased by sportsmen for themselves and for their children. The vast majority of gun owners are responsible people and many wonderfully deep and lasting friendships are forged between parents and kids who share an interest in hunting. Young girls are getting into the hunting scene in record numbers as well...it's not just a father/son thing anymore!
Still, gun accidents happen! The FBI estimates that Americans buy 12 million guns every year. There’s a lot of them around and you may have concerns when your child visits a friend in a gun-owning home. And, your concerns are warranted- for every 10 children killed each year, one is killed by a firearm. Yes, guns account for 10% of all deaths among kids from age 5 to 14. Last year, 1,400 children under age 18 were killed by guns and for each of these fatalities, almost 5 children received nonfatal firearm-related injuries. Many of these children had access to household firearms that were stored loaded or in unlocked places. Are the guns secured in a locked place at the homes your children visit?
You probably don't know the answer to that question, and that's what bothers you. So, what can you, as a parent, do in a country where almost as many people are killed by guns as by motor vehicles? Federal data reveals 31,236 firearm-related deaths and 36,361 motor vehicle-related deaths in 2009... and the gap is closing. In fact, in ten states, more people are slain by guns each year than are killed in car crashes.
I highly recommend you double-check that the gun-owning households where your children play have guns that are secured and inaccessible to children. Studies show that unintentional injuries, suicide, and homicide among youth occur when young people have easy access to firearms, especially when they‘re not properly stored. Why? Because 90% of fatal firearm incidents involving children occur within the home, and according to a study of children and youth aged 0 to 14 years (Wintemute), 40% of firearm incidents involve a firearm stored in the room in which the shooting occurs. Researchers also uncovered via interviews that twice as many firearm deaths among children and youth under age 18 occur in states with the highest proportion of people living in households with loaded firearms (Miller).
Through surveys, it was found that a third of adults in America keep firearms in or around their home. The prevalence of adults with household firearms ranged from 5.2% in the District of Columbia to 62.8% in Wyoming. The prevalence of adults with loaded household firearms ranged from 1.6% in Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey to 19.2% in Alabama and the prevalence of adults with loaded and unlocked household firearms ranged from 0.4% in Massachusetts to 12.7% in Alabama. Among adults with children and youth under age 18, the prevalence of loaded household firearms ranged from 1.0% to 13.4% and the prevalence of loaded and unlocked household firearms ranged from 0.3% to 7.3%. In sum, the studies reveal that nearly 2 million children and youth in the United States under age 18 are living with loaded and unlocked household firearms.
So, it crucial that you, and other parents with similar concerns, ask two questions: Do you know if the parents of your children’s friends are firearm owners? If so, do you know what their firearm safety precautions are?
If your answer to the second question above is "No", I advise that you you to ascertain their firearm safety precautions by considering the following six(6) “best practices” of gun ownership safety, which are espoused by the National Rifle Association (NRA), American Academy of Pediatrics and public health agencies:
1. Keep firearms stored unloaded, locked, and separated from ammunition. A child or teen should not have access to firearms without direct adult supervision.
2. Talk to your children about guns. Common Sense about Kids and Guns is a non-profit group of owners and non-owners of guns committed to working together to protect America's children from gun deaths and injuries. They recommend discussing firearms with children, especially if you have them in the house.
Pre-teens: This is a good time to begin talking with children about ways to solve problems that do not involve violence. With older children, explain to them the consequences of violence and the dangers inherent in the mishandling of guns. Continue to emphasize to children that they should never touch a gun without adult supervision.
Young children: Experts advise parents to reassure children that, as parents, they are doing their best to keep children safe. Children can be exposed to a good amount of violence by the media, especially from TV and movies. It is important to teach children that this is not real and that guns cause real injuries. Emphasize to them that they should never touch a gun and should always tell an adult if they come across one. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends repeating this message periodically to keep children from forgetting.
Teens: This can be a difficult time to maintain open communication with kids as they become more independent and rebellious. However, maintaining dialogue with your children can help you spot any potential problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that, at this point in a child’s life, it is easier to keep guns away from teens than to keep teens away from guns, which are often glamorized in the media. It is important that parents watch for signs of depression or changes in behavior, as teens feeling this way are at an increased risk for suicide.
3. Get yourself educated and aware about the risks of unsupervised access to guns by children and teens.
4. The most important thing a parent can do, according to Betsy McAlister Groves, director of the Child Witness to Violence Program at Boston Medical Center, is to listen to a child’s concerns. As she told Newsweek, "allowing kids to voice their worries is very important." Not talking about the problem will not make it go away.
5. Contact an organization like Common Sense about kids and guns: Their website is: http://www.kidsandguns.org/ You can reach them by snail mail, telephone or fax: 1225 I Street NW Washington, DC 20005 · (202) 546-0200 · fax: (202) 371-9615.
6. Ask yourself honestly: Do you feel your child may be prone to violence? Or, is any of your children's playmates prone to violence? If so, follow the steps above. Any child who is violence-prone should not have access to firearms. Definitely keep the firearm unloaded and locked away, separate from the ammunition, which should be locked away as well. Studies have shown that teens who are angry or depressed are more likely to kill themselves or others, particularly if a firearm is easy to get.
Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S. has retired from his positions of School Psychologist and adjunct professor in the School of Leadership and Policy Studies at Bowling Green State Univeristy. Questions? Comment? Concerns about family, parenting, educational or personal concerns? Contact him at the Family Journal.