Firearm violence has become a public health crisis in the United States. Guns are widely available in our society and are kept in millions of American homes. According to the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, almost 8.7 million children and adolescents have access to handguns, and many are either unaware of or ignore the possible consequences of handling these lethal weapons. Their mere presence poses a very real danger to children.
School-age children are curious about and often attracted to guns. They sometimes see guns as symbols of power. So do many adolescents and adults.
The availability of handguns in settings where children live and play has led to a devastating toll in human lives, reflected in some sobering and almost unthinkable statistics: Every two hours, someone's child is killed with a gun, either in a homicide, a suicide, or as a result of an unintentional injury. In addition, an unknown but large number of children are seriously injured—often irreversibly disabled—by guns but survive. Major urban trauma centers are reporting an increase of 300 percent in the number of children treated for gunshot wounds; in fact, one in every twenty-five admissions to pediatric trauma centers in the United States is due to gunshot wounds.
Parents should realize that a gun in the home is forty-three times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member than a burglar or other criminal. To compound this problem, depressed preteenagers and teenagers commit suicide with guns more frequently than by any other means.
The best preventive measure against firearm injuries and deaths is not to own a gun. However, if you choose to have firearms in your home, adhere to these rules for gun safety:
- Never allow your child access to your gun(s). No matter how much instruction you may give him or her, a youngster in the middle years is not mature and responsible enough to handle a potentially lethal weapon.
- Never keep a loaded gun in the house or the car.
- Guns and ammunition should be locked away safely in separate locations in the house; make sure children don't have access to the keys.
- Guns should be equipped with trigger locks.
- When using a gun for hunting or target practice, learn how to operate it before ever loading it. Never point the gun at another person, and keep the safety catch in place until you are ready to fire it. Before setting the gun down, always unload it. Do not use alcohol or drugs while you are shooting.
Even if you don't have guns in your own home, that won't eliminate your child's risks. Half of the homes in the United States contain firearms, and more than a third of all accidental shootings of children take place in the homes of their friends, neighbors, or relatives. A Center to Prevent Handgun Violence survey estimated that about 135,000 students carried handguns to school each day, and another 270,000 brought handguns to school at least once; that figure may be even higher today.
Here is some important information you need to communicate to your youngsters:
- Let them know that risks of gun injuries may exist in places they visit and play.
- Tell them that if they see or encounter a gun in a friend's home or elsewhere, they must steer clear of it, and tell you about it.
- Talk with the parents of your child's friends, and find out if they have firearms in their home. If they do, insist that they keep them unloaded, locked up, and inaccessible to children.
- Make sure your children understand that violence on TV and in the movies is not real. They need to be told—and probably reminded again and again—that in real life, children are killed and hurt badly by guns. Although the popular media often romanticize gun use, youngsters must learn that these weapons can be extremely dangerous.