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.

Kevin February 16, 2012 at 9:38 am

Thanks for the reminder. Like you, I initially thought that guns in the home wasn’t an issue that would really impact our family. However, as I read your post, I realized that gun ownership in my rural community is likely to be quite high.

In fact, when I was growing up, my dad had a locked closet in which he kept a couple of hunting rifles. He didn’t really hunt after he had kids, so I didn’t really think much of it. But, looking back on things, I know that at some point (late elementary school or middle school?) my brother and I realized that there were guns in that closet, and we figured out where the keys were stored. Fortunately, however, we didn’t have any interest in exploring the closet, and I don’t think we ever got into it.

I think there are a lot of valid reasons for people to have guns in the home (hunting, recreational shooting, self defense), but it does add a level of trust when you leave your kids in the home. Not only do you need to assess whether the parents are likely to know how to safely store their firearms, but also how likely the parents are to follow through on all the measures you described above (e.g., having the ammunition stored separately). I think it’s also important to gauge how attentive the parents are to the children during the playdate (and whether the children will have the opportunity to get into closets/storage areas they shouldn’t).

I’m sure my wife and I would feel pretty awkward asking the parents of our children’s friends about firearms before their first playdate, but obviously it would be better to ask than to leave things up to chance.

Drew Heyding February 16, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I agree – I imagined a hypothetical conversation with another parent on guns in the home and found myself wondering how it would not end up becoming a very uncomfortable interaction. I found the CPYV tips link at the bottom of the post more helpful than I was expecting. I also agree that gauging the attentiveness of another parent and your trust level (as is mentioned by another commenter below) will play an important role is decision making.

Dani February 16, 2012 at 4:20 pm

I’m with you, Kevin. Awkward, for sure, but far better than leaving things up to chance in this case.

Thank you for another relevant article, Drew! As a first time parent, I really appreciate the topics you’re discussing and how easily I can connect with you.

MB Lewis February 16, 2012 at 10:38 am

YIKES! This always worried me visiting relatives when my kids were small. I made my aunt show me where her gun case was so I could stand between it and the kids. If I knew your stats then I’d have worried more… or at least more often.
You again have chosen an excellent topic, Drew, making me wonder if there’s a niche out there for science blogging specifically for new parents?! Title and lead paragraph are excellent, although is this sentence a bit awkwardly phrased: “My wife is the same.”? You have a typo here: My daughter’s pediatrician told us the questions we should ask other parents when we drop[ of our kids off] for a play date. However, “dismissive wave of the hand” is beautifully descriptive phrasing.
Finally, comments on other blogs have asked for listed references/links at the end. This is one where I could see that as useful.
Best,
MB

Drew Heyding February 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm

MB – Thanks for the feedback on the topic choices. One of the things I’ve tried to focus on as this blog project has moved forward has been keeping a consistent audience in mind and making sure to write for that audience.

I’ve gone back and forth on the use of references. Reading other blogs I’ve found myself looking for a reference section with some posts but not others. I’ve stayed away from an explicit reference list up until now (choosing instead to link directly to PubMed citations) because I thought that full references at the end of a post might come across as “too academic” for a non-science audience.

Thanks for pointing out the typo!

Rosa M. February 16, 2012 at 11:15 am

I do agree with your last point, you just dont want to be another statistic, and in this case better safe than sorry. I have always found very troubling the relationship this country has with guns, that one of the most important amendments of the constitution protects the right to bear arms. The first time I entered a Walmart and saw there was an area where you could buy guns and there were a lot of children just walking around, I just could not believe my eyes, that parents would allow this. Its not the wild west anymore, and the only people allowed to bear arms should be the ones who protect us. And I would not certainly want children to be near any.

Josh February 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm

This is an interesting point, Rosa- My younger brother is one of the ‘ones who protect us’ and is required by law to carry a handgun on his person regardless of whether he is on duty or not, so my child will definitely be playing in a home with guns- his uncle’s home. Given that I grew up in and still visit the rural Midwest, I’m sure that won’t be the only place where this occurs. Of course, I know my brother and I trust him to protect his children and mine. I think that trusting the parents of your child’s play partners is really the key point here, though, because guns are far from the only issue. Pools, for instance, are significantly more dangerous than guns, but pediatricians don’t warn us about swimming pools. It’s easy to get hung up on these issues- guns are an emotional flashpoint for many people- but anything can be deadly. We need to focus on trusting the people we leave our children with, including other children. I would rather take my child to my brother’s house 100 times than take him to a careless pool owner’s house once.

-Josh

azmanam February 17, 2012 at 8:08 am

As Freakonomics likes to tell us, children are at a much higher risk of death at a friend’s house with a swimming pool than at a friend’s house with a gun.

http://www.freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-5/

Maria P February 17, 2012 at 9:04 am

Very true, yet the threat of a gun is real and cannot be dismissed because the risk of a pool is higher. One does not negate the other

Kelly February 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Wow Drew, thanks so much for this. I would say this is one of the more captivating posts I’ve read so far. As a small town Canadian who has never seen, let alone held, or been a home with a gun, these are issues I have never even contemplated before. That combined with my interest in combining data sets/health records for the purposes of research really made me think a lot after reading this piece. What does Canadian research have to say in this area? What do our statistics look like? What are the implications of government policies relating to the ownership and registration (and tracking) of firearms in Canada? I’m curious – and think I might spend some time this weekend looking into this….
Thanks so much!

Drew Heyding February 22, 2012 at 10:18 am

Kelly – I’m glad you found the post interesting. Coming from a clinical medicine background I hadn’t thought a lot about injuries as a broad category of causes of morbidity and mortality. Now I know that the CDC, for instance, has an whole center devoted to the injury prevention.

I hope you find some interesting things on of firearm related health outcomes in Canada.

PF Anderson February 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm

My concern about this post is that it appears to be biased, presenting only one side of the evidence for a very complex and controversial issue, and much of the evidence cited in the post is dated. I poked around a bit and found considerable variety in the research on gun safety issues, and some very interesting recent articles. I’m swamped right now, but if I have time, I’ll try to come back and share some additional examples. There is also only one solution proposed for the concern under discussion, rather than a range of options. I liked the use of personal stories in the post, but this is a time when that usually recommended practice has backfired, creating (instead of a sense of engagement) a sense of “I’m right and I’m not listening to anyone else.” It is very hard not to go there in communicating science to the public, but it is important, especially with controversial topics, to be respectful of varying points of view and to listen to and address a variety of approaches and voices around a topic.

Drew Heyding February 22, 2012 at 10:57 am

Thanks for taking the time to comment even though you were swamped. I’m looking forward to reading some of the recent articles you were able to find in your search. Without knowing exactly what research you’re referring to, it’s hard to reply to your comments in this respect.

It’s interesting to read your feedback on how this post came across. Conveying an opinion and supporting information without projecting a bias is something I’ve been wrestling with since I started this blog project. On this post, one of my first conscious choices was to identify myself right away as someone who has never used a gun.

I definitely agree that it’s important to be respectful of varying points of view, especially with controversial topics. For several years, when I was a practicing palliative care physician, I saw every day how important it is to respect different opinions and perspectives. When it comes to end-of-life treatment preferences individual values and beliefs can differ greatly. My opinion on artificial nutrition, for instance, was often different from the opinion of patients’ and families’. It’s probably naive to think that opinion can be subjugated completely in a circumstance like this. Maybe the most reasonable goal is to be aware of your perspective on a topic and be vigilant about how it is potentially biasing your communication with others when the topic comes up.

Kristy E. February 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Drew,

This was a great read. The statistics that you shared about unintentional firearm deaths in children under 15 shocked me, particularly when you said they were usually shot by a friend or family member and that more than half of the time this did not occur in the victim’s home. I grew up in the country, where most people had guns (primarily for hunting purposes). Because of this (and perhaps because I’m not a parent yet), I’ve never thought twice about people with guns in their homes, and I’ve never had the desire to look up the statistics or participate in the great debate that revolves around this topic. But, your post has me thinking now. When I am a parent one day, I’m sure this will stick with me. Thank you for sharing!

Angela February 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Hi Drew,
Thank you for bringing up this topic. I found it interesting to read. At first I thought: ah, that’s more of a US issue, but I think the advice could also be useful for European countries (not only for Switzerland!). Although guns are much less prevalent, kids are likely to be around them, especially in more rural areas, where you have hunters and rangers. In addition, there are sports people (once got shot at by UK kids with a sports rifle, but the window next to me got hit instead), police personel and rifle makers. My family contains all of these, for example. I remember my dad showing me the gun & the ammunition, so that I wouldn’t be curious about it. Luckily, I was one of those kids who found it way too disturbing to ever go near it. Did other stupid stuff instead!

Drew Heyding February 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

Wow that’s quite an experience you had in the UK. Glad they hit the window and not you.

Some of the research I came across while writing this post did address the differences in this issue across countries. For instance, this recent study used World Health Organization data and reported that the rate of unintentional firearm death in 2003 was 5.2 times higher than in other comparable high outcome countries. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20571454)

Dr. Bob February 22, 2012 at 7:49 am

It is interesting reading your blogs in the context of who I am (a primary care physician) and where I am (Toronto Canada). It would never occur to me to ask parents about guns as almost nobody owns them here except for sport. But times change. Toronto is becoming more violent and illegal gun possession is on the rise.

Carol Shannon February 29, 2012 at 8:53 am

HI Drew,
I’m seeing this rather late, but I really like this post. The way that you frame this (a personal story) is very effective. Your qwriting is clear & engaging. I think that there’s enough detail–too much can obscure the main point you’re making & you can always do another post if you’ve want to share more information. I like the way that the research that you cite is integrated into the post (as it should be; this is a blog post, not a research paper).

Carol.

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