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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman

Strategies for Addressing the Problem (1/4)

No single policy solution will end youth gun violence in the United States; a wide repertoire of approaches is needed to address different aspects of the problem. Key strategies that may reduce youth gun violence include: reducing unsupervised exposure to guns among children and youth; strengthening social norms against violence in communities; enforcing laws against youth gun carrying; altering the design of guns to make them less likely to be used by children and youth; and, perhaps most importantly, implementing new legal and regulatory interventions that make it more difficult for youth to obtain guns. Parents, community leaders, policymakers, and researchers all have vital roles to play in implementing these strategies.

Reducing Children's Unsupervised Exposure to Guns

By monitoring their children's behavior, environments, and media use, parents can be the first line of defense in protecting children from gun violence. Parents who choose to keep guns in the home have a special responsibility to make sure that their children, and other children who visit their homes, do not have access to these weapons without supervision. Because research indicates that educational efforts aimed at persuading children and youth to stay away from guns or behave responsibly around them are of limited effectiveness,52 policymakers and public health experts need to find creative, effective ways to educate parents about the importance of keeping their children safe through parental monitoring and safe gun storage.

Parental Monitoring

Close parental supervision can help keep children away from dangerous environments and situations.48 Ethnographic research indicates that this approach may be especially effective in neighborhoods where violence is commonplace.53 Parents who monitor their children closely also may be able to spot signs of violent behavior in their children more easily.

In addition, parents should monitor their children's media use, including their use of computers and video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents watch programming with their children; limit screen time for all media, including computers and video games, to a total of one to two hours per day; use the V-chip to restrict viewing of violent television; avoid violent video games; and keep children's bedrooms media-free.54

Safe Storage

As the American Academy of Pediatrics observes, the best way to prevent firearm injuries among children in the home is to remove guns from the home.2 However, some parents who use guns for sport or self-defense are unwilling to take this step. In recent years, some gun control advocates and firearms manufacturers have promoted an alternative: safe storage of guns in homes with children or where children are likely to visit. They have counseled parents who own guns to store them locked, unloaded, and separate from their ammunition.55

Safe gun storage practices have the potential to decrease unintentional shootings by making guns less accessible to children and youth.56 Safe storage also may reduce criminal gun use by youth by decreasing their access to guns in the home and by deterring theft, which is a prominent supply source for the illegal market, where many youth obtain guns.56,57

Although some oppose safe storage because they believe it makes guns less accessible for self-defense,58 this concern must be weighed carefully against the risk that a child could find and use guns that are not stored safely. A 1999 study of young people under age 20 who were killed or injured in unintentional shootings in King County, Washington, found that 69% of these shootings took place in the young person's home, or in the residence of a relative or friend.59 As the article by Smith in this journal issue notes, more than 70% of Americans support enacting laws that require guns to be stored locked and/or unloaded.

One interesting approach to promoting safe storage is being taken by the nonprofit group PAX, which has developed a series of public service announcements for its ASK (Asking Saves Kids) campaign.60 The campaign, designed in consultation with the American Academy of Pediatrics, encourages parents to ask their neighbors if they have guns in their home—and if so, how those guns are stored—before sending their children over to play. However, this program has not yet been evaluated.

The Need for Parent Education and Awareness

Although efforts to promote safe gun storage have been widespread in recent years, studies estimate that only 30% to 39% of gun-owning American households with children store their guns locked and unloaded.21,61 A study published in 2000 estimates that in 1.4 million homes—households that include approximately 2.6 million children—guns are stored loaded and unlocked. Guns are most likely to be stored in this manner in households in the South, in households with teenagers, and in households where someone is employed in law enforcement.21

The low safe storage rates in gun-owning households with children highlight the need for greater parent education and awareness about the risks that guns pose to children and youth. As detailed in the article by Hardy in this journal issue, parents often have serious misperceptions about their children's vulnerability to injury, believing that their children are unlikely to become victims of serious injury, that injuries are unavoidable products of fate, or that their children can take care of themselves.

A 1999 study of 400 parents in metropolitan Atlanta illustrates the latter point: 74% believed their child would either leave a gun alone or tell an adult if they found a gun.62 A follow-up study published in 2001 that tested this perception found the reality to be quite different. In this study, parents were asked to rate their 8- to 12-year-old sons' interest in guns. The boys were then paired with a playmate or sibling and left alone to play in a room containing two toy guns and a real handgun. Among the boys whose parents thought their sons had a low interest in guns, 65% handled the real handgun; 35% of boys perceived to have a low interest pulled the trigger.63

Misperceptions about children's ability to assess dangers and avoid guns may be one reason that many parents resist messages to store their guns safely or remove them from the home, even when children are clearly at risk. In one study published in 2000, gun-owning parents of depressed adolescents at risk of suicide were counseled by their doctors to remove firearms from the home. Only 27% did so. In a comparison group of parents who had depressed adolescents but who did not own guns when the study began, 17% acquired them over the next two years.34

Nor have gun safety training programs been shown to increase safe storage practices. In fact, one study of gun owners found, “Individuals who have received firearm training are significantly more likely to keep a gun in the home both loaded and unlocked.”64

By and large, laws requiring adults to store guns safely also do not appear to be successful in reducing unintentional gun deaths among young people. Seventeen states have enacted these Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, which make it a crime for adults to store guns negligently so that they are later accessed by children or adolescents.65 A 2000 analysis of 15 states with CAP laws found a 17% decrease in unintentional child gun deaths in those states, but the entire decrease was explained by one state, Florida, where the death rate fell by 51%. No other state with a CAP law experienced a statistically significant decline in unintentional firearm deaths among children. The study's authors theorized that Florida experienced unique declines because its law imposed the stiffest penalties of any state, its unintentional child gun death rate was unusually high prior to the law's enactment, and the law was highly publicized as Florida was the first state to enact a CAP law.66