Study finds firearms are stored less safely in homes with older children

Boston, MA -- More than 1.6 million U.S. children live in homes with firearms that are stored loaded and unlocked. Because the guns used in youth suicides and unintentional injuries primarily come from victims' homes, storage practices that allow for easy access to a firearm pose a threat to the safety of young people. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) surveyed parents about household firearm storage practices and found that those with adolescents are more likely to store guns loaded and/or unlocked than those with younger children. The findings are published in the August 2006 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The researchers, including Matthew Miller, assistant professor of health policy at HSPH, and Renee M. Johnson, a research fellow at HSPH, used data from the National Firearms Study 2004, a national random telephone survey of 2,770 adults that asked questions about firearm ownership. Of the 392 respondents who had at least one child and one firearm in the home, 22 percent had a loaded gun, 32 percent had an unlocked gun and 8 percent had a gun stored loaded and unlocked.

The researchers also found that gun-owning parents whose children were aged 13-17 years were significantly more likely to have an unlocked firearm in the home compared to gun-owning parents whose children were 12 or younger (42 percent vs. 29 percent). The study suggests that parents of older children may be less vigilant about keeping firearms stored securely, possibly because they believe teenagers will act responsibly around firearms. "Unfortunately, parents of older kids are not basing their decisions about storage on the true risks imposed by firearms: Teenagers are exponentially more likely than younger children to die from firearm injury, especially suicide," said Johnson.

The authors believe that future educational efforts should focus on the risk firearms pose to adolescents as well as younger children. "Just as parents focus their energy on keeping infants and children injury-free by limiting other hazards in the home, they should also focus on keeping adolescents safe from violence and injury," said Johnson. "Part of this involves removing guns from the home, or keeping them stored unloaded and in a locked place that young people cannot get to. This is especially important for adolescents who are experiencing depression or other mental health problems."

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The National Firearms Study 2004 was supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public's health through learning, discovery, and communication. More than 300 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 900-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights. For more information on the school visit: www.hsph.harvard.edu


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