Guns and Play Dates

by Drew Heyding on February 16, 2012

I’ve never shot a gun before or even held one in my hands. Life is unpredictable, I suppose, but it’s difficult for me to come up with a scenario where I would ever be shooting a gun. My wife is the same.

Alaska Department of Public Safety

So when she took our daughter for a check-up a few weeks ago, she gave the pediatrician a dismissive wave of the hand when he brought up guns in the home. Not something for us to worry about we thought.

It hadn’t really crossed our minds that we would need to worry about guns in other peoples’ homes.  But it turns out that there are a variety of good reasons we should worry.

Using national survey data, researchers have shown that guns can be found in 1 out of every 3 homes with children in the United States.

A separate study looked at details surrounding accidental shooting deaths. The authors of this study reported that in 78 percent of unintentional firearm deaths in children under 15 the child was shot by another person. Usually this person was a friend or family member. More than half of these deaths did not occur in the victim’s home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) track deaths due to injury just like they track deaths due to infection and chronic disease. The study on accidental shooting deaths used data from the National Violent Death Reporting System. This is a unique initiative that combines information from distinct sources (like homicide detectives, crime labs, coroners and medical examiners).

Data from other tracking systems used by the CDC give us some idea of the magnitude of this public health problem. In 2010, 2,313 children and teens (aged 0 to 18) were treated in an emergency room for injuries from an unintentional gunshot wound. For deaths the most recent numbers are from 2007. In that year, 122 children and teens were killed in an accidental shooting.

My daughter’s pediatrician told us the questions we should ask other parents when we drop our kids off for a play date. Of course, he told us to find out if there’s a gun in the home. But he also instructed us to ask if the gun is stored locked and unloaded with the ammunition kept locked up separately.

These are very specific details that come out of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) a few years ago. In it, the authors looked at cases of suicide and accidental shooting deaths in youths and compared these cases with randomly sampled families who had children and a gun in the home.

By making this comparison, the authors showed that in the homes of children and adolescents who had died, guns were more likely to be have been left loaded and unlocked. Ammunition was also more likely to be unlocked and stored together with the guns.

The Center to Prevent Youth Violence encourages parents to A.S.K. (asking saves kids). They recommend all of the questions our pediatrician told us about, and their awareness campaign also gives great tips on making it easier to have this kind of conversation with another parent.

Is asking enough? The JAMA study can tell us about risk factors that were associated with accidental shooting deaths, but the study design makes it impossible to know for sure if the recommended safety measures are enough. If I did find out I was dropping my kids off for a play date in a home with guns, I’m not sure if it would matter how safely I was told the guns were kept.