Gun Safety and Children: Risks and Responsibilities of Gun Ownership

We are a diverse group of women with diverse views, as outlined in our first blog post. Gun control is no exception. Our experience and perspectives range from desiring a complete ban on all weapons to having served in the armed forces and enjoying visits to the firing range. However, we encourage evidence based-parenting, seek to educate our followers on the recommendations of experts, and seek policies that are aligned with the scientific consensus. In this post, we review the recommendations from medical institutions on gun ownership and gun safety, the risks of gun ownership, and stress that the proper storage of guns and ammunition are critical to reducing gun-related injuries.

Before getting into the numbers, it is important to note that a child is anyone 0-17 years of age. Because of the range in age and the differences in physical and mental development, gun-related injuries and deaths vary dramatically by age. There’s also a stark difference between injuries/deaths between sexes, with boys accounting for 82% of all firearm-related deaths. It also bears mentioning that 91% of firearm deaths in children age 0-14 in high-income countries occur in the United States.

A paper published in 2017 looked at the incidence of pediatric firearm-related injuries across the United States, using data from 2012-2014. The number of fatal firearm injuries was 1.74 for every 100,000 children (53% were homicides, 38% were suicides, and 6% were unintentional). The number of non-fatal firearm injuries was 7.86 for every 100,000 children. To put this into perspective, the number of drownings among 0-19-year-olds was only 1.2 for every 100,000 children in 2000-2005 (see Figure 7).

The paper also explored the circumstances underlying fatal firearm injuries among children. It found:

  • Suicides often happen if a crisis has occurred in the life of the child/teen in the past two weeks.
  • Homicides involving children primarily occur after an argument.
  • Most unintentional firearm discharges happen when children are playing with a gun.
    • The most likely shooter is another child in the same age group.
    • Other studies also confirm this finding: the shooter in unintentional firearm injuries/deaths amongst children is most often a brother or a friend.
  • For all types of incidences, the most common location of the fatal firearm injury is in someone’s home or apartment.
  • For all types of incidences, the most common weapon used is a handgun.

In the United States, the rate of fatal firearm homicides and unintentional firearm fatalities have been decreasing since 2007 and 2002, respectively. However, the rate of fatal firearm suicides has been increasing since 2007.

Risk of owning a gun

Owning a gun is a risk. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. This is particularly true for suicides. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “a gun stored in the home is associated with a threefold increase in the risk of homicide and a fivefold increase in the risk of suicide”. Suicide is considered to be an impulsive action, so easy access to a gun increases the likelihood and the fatality of suicides. The numbers show that most firearm suicides are fatal, whereas the same is not true when suicide is attempted by other means. Suicide attempts by drug overdose, for example, are fatal in only 1.5% of cases. In contrast, suicide attempts by firearm are fatal in 82.5% of cases.  

An important study conducted in 2006 separately asked parents and children about access to guns in homes. In 39% of cases where parents thought that children did not know where the firearm(s) was located, the child actually did. In 22% of cases where parents thought that children had not handled the firearm(s), the child actually had. These findings did not correlate with the amount of education that parents had provided to their children on gun safety.

Studies looking at the overall risk of gun ownership have highlighted that firearms are more likely to be used in suicides or homicides than in self-defense. However, in my discussions with firearm owners, the thought is that these studies underestimate how often gun owners use their guns in self-defense since these can go unreported. Undoubtedly, more research is needed, which is why we add our voices to those calling for increased funding for research on gun-related violence.

Undue emphasis on risk of school shootings

When it comes to gun violence and children, school shootings capture most of the headlines. However, these events, although extremely tragic and heart-wrenching, are also extremely rare and a very low risk to our children. As noted by risk expert David Ropeik, “far more kids are shot outside school than in one”. In fact, Ropeik calculates the “statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 [to be] roughly 1 in 614,000,000”.  Yet school shootings are the primary topic of discussion surrounding preventing gun injuries in children.

Extraordinary emphasis on these rare events has skewed our perspective on gun safety. But if we consider that far more gun-related accidents and suicides involving children occur in homes, we can take measures to reduce these events by practicing responsible gun ownership.

If you need help talking to your kids about a school shooting, the National Association of School Psychologists has tips for parents and teachers, available in many languages.

What should parents do?

Keeping in mind that the children involved in unintentional gun-related injuries or fatalities are usually siblings or friends, it is important to ensure that all children, not just children of gun owners, know what to do around a gun. Most importantly, a recent paper which examined gun ownership in homes where children are at increased risk for self-harm found that no additional preventive measures are being taken. In such instances, parents should seriously consider whether the risk of gun ownership outweighs the benefits (please see our series on risk).

Here are some recommendations from medical institutions and others on ways to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of gun-related injuries:

Learn more about gun safety and children in this infographic from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Learn more about gun safety and children from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Case-control studies on youth suicides and unintentional firearm injuries recommend the following storage practices:
    • The gun is kept under lock and key or in a safe
    • The gun is stored unloaded
    • The ammunition is stored in a separate location
    • The ammunition is stored in a locked spot
    • Keep the keys to the locks hidden.
  • Talk to your child about what to do in case they see a gun:
    • The NRA’s Eddie Eagle program advocates for teaching children the following steps: Stop! Don’t touch. Run away. Tell an adult.
    • Keep in mind that education on responsible gun handling, while important, has not been shown to reduce the likelihood that a child will handle a gun (see here or here). However, experts believe that teaching children what to do around a gun and repeating the information is important.
  • If your child is going to a friend’s house for a playdate or sleep over, ask the parents whether there is a gun in the house. If so, ensure that it is unloaded and appropriately locked.
  • Be mindful of your child’s media intake and the amount of violence they’re being exposed to, particularly with children under the age of 6 who cannot yet distinguish fantasy from reality (our family loves the detailed ratings from Common Sense Media).
    • Ensure that children know that, unlike what they may have seen in video games and TV, guns can seriously injure someone.
    • Check out expert guidelines on internet safety, which stress co-viewing content with your children.
  • Listen and Ask”. If you see sudden behavioural changes in your child, be sure to talk to them. If you believe your child is at risk for self-harm, in addition to seeking medical assistance, consider removing the gun from your home. Contact a gun shop or your local police department to get rid of it safely, or ask a trusted friend or family member to securely store it for you.

This post was originally written March 2018. It was updated in May 2019 to include relevant information on school shootings. An additional update in December 2021 added tips for talking to kids about violence.