By Dr. Kati Eisenhuth

Let’s do a thought experiment about our kids’ safety. Let’s send our kids on a hypothetical playdate to a friend’s house. I have boys, so in this scenario, I’ll send my oldest son. Here’s how my drop-off goes: I let the other parent know my son has tummy trouble. He shouldn’t have too much junk food. Fruit is OK. I hand over a bag with sunscreen, extra clothes, and a helmet, just in case wheels are involved. “Be good,” I tell my son. I flash that Mom look and give him a hug before he wiggles away. I make sure the parent has my number for emergencies and I thank them.

Did your drop-off go like mine? What did we miss? We left them with good people and we’ve sent them there before. They should be fine, right?

But how safe are they if there are guns in the house? What if the guns are unlocked and loaded?

I never asked about guns until something happened. It was one recent day when my son followed his friend into his family’s garage. My son had just arrived and, when they spotted each other, the boys were struck with an overwhelming burst of energy and excitement. While I spoke with the parents, the boys thundered into the garage, my son right on the heels of his friend, to find the balls that were kept in a mesh bag just inside the door. They dumped the bag and balls bounced all around, some coming to rest beside a duffel bag strewn a few feet away. Suddenly, the friend’s attention shifted. He raced to the bag, picked it up, pulled on the zipper and held out a rifle. The rifle had been left outside the lock box after a weekend trip to the hunting camp and, to this day, I have no idea if it was loaded or not.

There were three parents watching that day, laughing at the motor-like activity of young boys, when the rifle emerged from the bag. It got snatched away immediately and there was no harm done. But how often do we look away? How often are we in the next room? It doesn’t take long.

My son didn’t touch the gun that day. He barely got a peek before it was slammed into a locked cabinet and my heart palpitations slowed to a steady rhythm. I walked away feeling confident. My son would never have laid a finger on a gun. Right?

What would your child do?

I talk to my son about guns. He is dutiful in his response when I ask him, “What do you do if you see a gun?”

He knows to say, “I don’t touch it, Mom.” This lets me breathe a mini-sigh of relief. I smile and feel proud and safe. But truthfully, I shouldn’t. My son is about to turn six and there is good evidence that my heart should keep skipping beats. Enough to remind me to ask questions every time I leave him in another house.

A 2001 study at Emory looked at the behaviors of 8-12-year old boys. They were sent with a friend or a sibling into a room, where a gun was hidden in a drawer. Seventy-two percent of the groups found the gun and, when found, 70% of the boys handled the gun. Gut-wrenchingly, 48% pulled the trigger.

When I read this study, I thought to myself, but my son would remember what we talked about. He would remember what to do. He would hear our voices echoing through his mind at the crucial time and never touch that gun.

That’s what other parents thought as well. Seventy-four percent of gun-owning parents believe their child would leave a gun alone if found. Because they talk to their kids about guns and safety. But 90% of the boys in the above study who handled the gun had received gun safety instruction beforehand.

So, I asked my son again what he would do if he found a gun just lying around. He gave me that look and recited the magic words that used to make me feel better. Then I asked him, “What if you thought it might be a toy?”

And this is when my heart started up again: He said, “If I think it’s a toy, then it’s ok, Mom. Right?”

In the above study, half of the boys thought the real gun was a toy.

Let’s do another experiment. This one’s harder. Let’s say our kids are a little older. Maybe early adolescents. They’re moody and when you ask them questions about their day, they offer one-word answers. They no longer want to play basketball like they used to love and instead prefer to spend their time sprawled on their bed alone, browsing Facebook. You can’t remember the last time you saw a smile.

As parents, what action should we take?

No one wants to think about their own child and suicide with the same neuron. Yet, suicide rates are rising in the US, particularly in kids. From 1999 to 2014, suicide tripled in 10-14-year old’s and increased by 50% in 15-24 year old’s. According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death in kids age 15-19 and guns are the most common method in this age group. Fifteen percent of US adolescents in 9-12th grades seriously consider suicide. The risk of suicide in a teen is increased by simply having guns in the home. This increased risk occurs even in teens without a previous psychiatric diagnosis.

If we have a teenager, what should we do with respect to firearms in our home?
This is a bit like preaching abstinence. Obviously, the most reliable way to keep our teens safe from firearm injuries at home is to not have firearms. But one third of households do. There are other measures.

Simply locking a gun reduces the risk of death or injury by 73%.

I am often told that keeping a gun locked and unloaded defeats the purpose of having one. Seventy-five percent of gun owners do so for self-protection. But here are some scary facts:

  • A gun is 43 times more likely to be used against a family member or friend than a criminal.
  • In the event of an assault, a person in possession of a gun is 4 times more likely to be shot than someone without a gun.

Given these numbers, it could be argued that protection is better achieved with safe storage of the gun.

Guns kill 1,300 children per year. Half of these are homicides, 38% suicides, and 6% are unintentional. What can we do to keep our kids safe? Here are three strategies:

  • Safe gun storage. Forty-three percent of firearms are stored in an unsafe manner, including 13% stored unlocked and loaded. Locking a gun reduces injury risk by 73%.
  • Education. Talk to kids about guns, about steering clear and alerting an adult if they spot one. This is important but we need to realize that in our youngest children, these conversations are merely planting safety seeds. We need to aim our largest efforts at parents because research shows that even well-informed children handle guns when confronted with them.
  • Ask about guns. Don’t let your kids visit another house without finding out the gun status first. If there is a concern, invite the kids to play at your house.