Guns at Home

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Mark Schuster, M..D., Ph.D., Todd Franke, Ph.D., Amy Bastian, MPH, et al. American Journal of Public Health April 2000, Vol. 90, No. 4, pgs. 588-593 Free from Dr. Schuster at RAND, 1700 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90407. E-mail: schuster@rand.org

Two new developments emphasize the dangers of guns in the home, and have implications for public policy and the policy positions of presidential candidates.

Schuster's study, based on the 1994 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that 43 percent of U.S. households with children and guns store their firearms unlocked - not in a locked place, and not locked with a trigger lock or other locking mechanism. Nine percent keep them loaded and unlocked.

The researchers, from RAND and U.C.L.A., found that 35 percent of homes with children have at least one gun. That translates to 22 million children in more than 11 million homes. In households with children, those with an adult male in the home were over three times more likely than those with only an adult female to have a firearm (41 percent vs. 12 percent).

These findings support current policy efforts to pass laws requiring trigger locks and smart guns. The carelessness of gun owners and children's apparent access to guns in millions of homes across America also have implications for the greatly divergent gun control positions of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced new recommendations in April to help prevent teen suicides by removing guns from the home. The policy recommends that pediatricians routinely ask their patients about guns in the home, because firearms are the leading cause of death by suicide. Suicide among 15-to-18-year-olds has increased about 300 percent since the 1950s, and the chair of the AAP's committee on adolescents believes it is related to increased availability of guns.

Trigger locks and hiding guns are unlikely to work with adolescents, so AAP recommends that "parents get guns and ammunition out of the house" if there are any concerns about depression or possible suicide. Even though these teens may try other methods to kill themselves, most other methods are less lethal. For example, if they take a drug overdose, their lives can often be saved.

The group also advises that there are warning signs of possible suicide, such as a history of depression, a previous suicide attempt, a family history of psychiatric disorders, or family disruption. In addition, alcohol is involved in half of suicides.

Although the group's recommendations are focused on pediatricians, they are equally relevant to youth workers. Youth workers have potentially even more opportunities to ask questions and provide guidance aimed at removing guns from the homes of adolescents.