June is National Safety Month, and while we’ve all been in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been suffering from another epidemic, and that’s firearm injuries. Firearm injuries are increasing, both locally and across the country. This past year, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, we broke records with the number of children we treated after being shot by a firearm. Yes, you heard right, I’m talking about children being shot! As a pediatrician, I never thought that firearm injuries would be a major part of what I see. But at our peak last summer, we averaged seeing a child shot in our Emergency Department every other day. Firearm injuries are a public health epidemic that is injuring and killing children at alarming rates.
Over four million children live in a home with an unlocked gun. This means that there are over four million children today who have potential access to firearms, each a tragedy waiting to happen. We also know that nationally, sales to first-time gun owners have increased, meaning even more children with potential access to firearms. Children are naturally and appropriately curious, and unfortunately, we know through experience that even toddlers are capable of pulling the trigger on a firearm. Historically, about one-third of our firearm injuries are unintentional and can be prevented by the use of proper firearm storage techniques. Unintentional shootings happen to children of all ages, and the only way to prevent them is through storing firearms safely and providing a barrier between children and guns.
The statistics are both staggering and sobering, and I invite you all to join in the dialogue with me and protect our children.
Where to Start?
The website www.besmartforkids.org helps parents talk with their children and other parents about gun safety by dividing it into five simple steps using the acronym SMART:
S – Secure guns in homes and vehicles.
You should store guns unloaded and locked with the ammunition locked and stored separately. While you may think your child does not know where your firearm is located, studies show that despite what parents think, 75% of children know where the firearm is in their home, and many have admitted to handling it when their parents or guardians are not around. You can sign up at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for a free gun lock that we’ll send to you in the mail.
M – Model responsible behavior.
It is the responsibility of the gun owner to model responsible behavior. Children are very curious, and they don’t see the danger that weapons may pose. Whether your family owns guns or not, as adults, we are responsible for our children, so make sure you model responsible behavior with firearms.
A – Ask about unsecured guns in other homes.
June 21st, the first day of summer, is ASK Day which stands for Asking Saves Kids. This is a campaign from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that promotes the simple idea to ask about guns in the home before sending your children to play. Starting the conversation can be the hardest part, and talking with other parents about guns in their homes can be awkward. But it’s a simple question that has the power to save a child’s life.
As parents, we often ask about other safety measures like pool safety, pets in the home, and appropriate supervision, but we don’t ask enough about guns! ASK Day is a reminder to add questions about access to guns to your playdate checklist and start by ASKing “is there an unlocked gun in your house?” before sending your child to a friend, caretaker, or relative’s home. Discussing gun storage before a playdate should be as routine as discussing food allergies. It can be easiest to volunteer information about your home before you are asked or use a question like “my kid is pretty curious, and our doctor recommended that I ask — is there an unlocked gun where my child will play?”
R – Recognize the risks of teen suicide.
During the pandemic, we have also been seeing record numbers of children presenting to the hospital with mental health crises. Almost 20% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year, and 45% of teenagers report having “easy access” to firearms. For most, thoughts of suicide are usually brief and temporary, and suicide attempts are typically sudden and impulsive decisions. But, suicide by firearms has a case fatality rate of over 85%, meaning that those who use a firearm to attempt suicide are likely to be successful. The majority of children and teenagers who commit suicide with a firearm do so with a family member’s gun, meaning that putting time and space between someone in crisis and firearms by using safe storage methods can make all the difference and save the life of a loved one.
T – Tell your peers to be smart.
The more often these conversations occur, the easier they are to have. Join me in normalizing the conversation and talking about responsible gun ownership to keep our children safe.
No conversation is off-limits when it comes to the safety of our kids. Teaching our children not to touch guns is simply not enough. We must assume that our teenagers and children can find guns in our homes or others, and we must Be SMART!