4.6 Million Children Live in Homes Where Guns Are Unsafely Stored: Survey

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Photo by Steven Straiton via Flickr

An estimated 4.6 million children live in a home where they are exposed to unsafely stored guns, according to study published in the June issue of the Journal of Urban Health.

The figure, based on a 2015 survey, represents an estimated seven percent of children living in a home where at least one individual owned a firearm.

“Among gun-owning households with children, approximately two in ten gun owners store at least one gun in the least safe manner, i.e., loaded and unlocked,” the study found. “Three in ten store all guns in the safest manner, i.e., unloaded and locked; and the remaining half store firearms in some other way.”

The figure represents more than double the estimates from the last nationally representative survey conducted in 2002, which showed 1.6 million children lived in homes where firearms were unsafely stored.

The study is one of nine open-access articles in the June issue that focus on different aspects of gun violence, in an effort to compensate for what issue editor David Vlahov says is the “sparse” data available on firearm violence and intervention strategies since 1996, when the Congress prohibited funding on research studies that “advocate or promote gun control.”

Several of the studies deal with issues that have been connected to recent mass shootings in the US.

The firearms storage study, titled Firearm Storage in Gun-Owning Households with Children, was a collaborative effort by Deborah Azrael, Associate Director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center; Joanna Cohen, Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health; Carmel Salhi, Program Evaluation Assistant at Harvard University; and Matthew Miller, Co-Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

The study, described by the authors as “the first contemporary estimate in over 15 years of the number of US children who live in households with guns and, within these households, how firearms are stored,” focused on gun storage practices among gun owners with children under the age of 18. It relied on data obtained through from a Web-based survey taken in 2015.

Survey respondents varied across demographics including gender, race, age, political ideology and location.

The authors estimate that out of the total 13 million homes including children under the age of 18 that contained at least one gun, 2.7 million homes possessed a firearm that was stored, loaded and unlocked.

The study comes on the heels of one of the mass school shooting in Santa Fe, Tx., in which 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis used a gun registered under his father’s name to kill 10 people and wound 13 others.

The authors restate the well documented risks of having a gun in a household with children, and cite a bevy of studies that show having a gun in the home “substantially increases the risk of suicide and unintentional firearm death” among children.

Observing that while household gun ownership rates in the US have remained relatively stable over the past two decades, the study authors suggest that firearm storage practices may have shifted as a result of changing attitudes towards gun ownership.

“According to polling conducted by Gallup, the percentage of US adults who “believed that a gun in the home makes it a safer place to be,” rose from 35 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2014.

The study found that one in three households in the US contains at least one gun, whether there’s a child under 18 in the household or not. Half of households with children have either one gun loaded and locked, or unloaded and unlocked.

The authors found “21 percent of homes with children and guns store at least one gun loaded and unlocked,” compared to just 8 percent from the 2002 survey.

The authors say interventions that address this misconception could slow this trend.

One finding that the authors say hasn’t been reported before, to their knowledge, is that the only demographic in which gun storage practices differ was gender. The data indicate female gun owners in homes with children were slightly more likely to leave them loaded and unlocked than males.

Many children under the age of 18 are killed or wounded from firearms in the U.S. each year, with nearly 1,500 deaths recorded in 2015, with an additional 7,000 non-fatal injuries. Some 40 percent of those who died were from suicide or an unintentional firearm injury.

The authors say that attempts by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics to curb unsafe gun storage in households with children through guidance have fallen short, and that their findings “underscore the need for more active and creative efforts to reduce children’s exposure to unsafely stored firearms.”

The other studies in the journal dealt with a number of issues that are symptomatic of a lack of gun regulation and knowledge:

Suicide and Additional Homicides Associated with Intimate Partner Homicide: North Carolina 2004-2013, dealt with the issue of intimate partner homicide.  It suggests that restricting access to firearms in households where evidence of domestic violence is present can help prevent these types of crimes.

Gun Theft and Crime studied the prevalence of stolen guns used in crime, and found stolen guns to only play a minor role in assaults and robberies.

Criminal Use of Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Semiautomatic Firearms: an Updated Examination of Local and National Sources notes a recent change that assault rifles now account for the majority of assault weapons used in crime as opposed to assault pistols, differing from past estimates. The findings suggest an increase in lethality over time of assault weapons used in violence since the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004.

State Firearm Laws and Interstate Transfer of Guns in the USA, 2006–2016 looked at the flow of crime guns between states and found a pattern of guns flowing out of states with weak gun laws and into states with stronger gun laws. In other words, the findings suggest states with stronger gun laws are subverted by nearby states with weaker gun laws.

Adult Connection in Assault Injury Prevention among Male Youth in Low-Resource Urban Environments examined connections between supportive adult connection and severe assault injury among youths in under-resourced areas. The authors were unable to demonstrate positive adult relationships protecting youths from severe assault injury in low-resource environments.

A Secondary Spatial Analysis of Gun Violence near Boston Schools: a Public Health Approach looked at the number of shootings near schools in Boston, Ma.,to try to find places that may be focal points for violence, which can then be targeted for violence prevention programs. One of its findings was that gun violence is concentrated near schools in low-income, racially homogenous areas, or “hot spots.”

Association between Firearm Laws and Homicide in Urban Counties studied the effect of certain gun laws on homicide rates in large, urban counties.  It found an increased risk of homicide in areas with right-to-carry laws compared to other states with tighter restrictions on giving concealed-carry permits. It also found permit-to-purchase laws can be an effective tool states can implement to decrease firearm homicide.

Closer to Guns: the Role of Street Gangs in Facilitating Access to Illegal Firearms examined whether or not gangs facilitate access to firearms by shortening “network distance,” and the relationship between access and gunshot injuries among gang members. They found that gang membership can substantially make access to firearms easier, and that the closer gang members are to guns, the greater their risk of gunshot victimization.

Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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