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Keeping Young Children Safe from Accidental Firearm Injuries

One of the most important jobs of growing up to is to learn to understand cause and effect. Young children develop this life-long cognitive skill by actively exploring their world. When your baby flaps her arms in the bathtub to cause a splash, she is using trial and error to discover the rules about how the objects around her work and how she can play a role in making things happen.

Your goal throughout your baby’s childhood will be to keep your home as safe as possible, so that your child will be able to experience cause and effect in a way that allows her to learn important lessons: What happens when a tower of blocks is pushed over? What happens when a drawer is pulled open all the way? What happens when a cup of milk is dropped on the floor? But a child’s natural curiosity can cause some effects that bring very costly lessons—unintentional injuries are the most common cause of death of children over age one. This article focuses on ways to avoid one frequent, costly lesson in cause-and-effect: firearms in the home that are accessible to children.

It is estimated that firearms are present in about one-third of all U.S. homes with children, making them extremely common hazards. Many parents hope to keep their children safe by keeping firearms hidden out of sight, but because of a young child’s natural, and developmentally appropriate, curiosity about guns, the most common age for a child to accidently shoot and kill herself is age 3. In fact, most accidental, self-inflicted shootings occur among children who are less than 5 years old.

About half of these accidental shootings take place in the child’s own home. If you or your partner own any firearms, please educate yourself about safe storage practices, such as these recommended by the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Project Child Safe:

Unloaded firearms should be stored in a locked gun cabinet, safe, vault or storage case and ammunition should be stored in a locked location separate from firearms. Store the keys for the gun and the ammunition out of reach of children and in a different area from where you store household keys. Or, use biometric locks that allow only the gun owner to access the gun or ammunition.

Gun locking devices (trigger locks or cable locks) render firearms inoperable and, while not a substitute for secure storage, can be used in addition.

Thoroughly double-check firearms to confirm that they are unloaded when you remove them from and return them to storage. Accidents could occur if an adult family member borrows a gun and returns it to storage while still loaded.

Adults should never leave any firearm unattended when handling or cleaning, even for a moment.

If any risk factors such as mental illness, drug/alcohol abuse, or violence exist within the household, ensure firearms are inaccessible to those older children or adults at risk, as well.

In addition, because about 40% of accidental shootings of young children occur in the home of a friend or relative, it is important to ask anyone who hosts your children about their household’s firearm storage practices. This includes neighbors, extended family, paid or family babysitters and parents of playmates. Ask questions until you are confident that any firearms are not merely hidden, but are locked and secure. The Asking Saves Kids campaign of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Coalition to Prevent Youth Violence recommends asking about guns along with other issues you might normally discuss before taking your child to someone’s house, such as car seats, animals or allergies.

It is a child’s job to touch, explore, and try new things in a constant effort to discover her world. Working together, you and your friends, neighbors and family can help your children safely exercise their curiosity, so they can continue to learn from those beneficial lessons that help their brains grow.

What measures do you take to ensure your home and the homes your child visits are secure and safe?

Anneliese Dickman is the policy and program researcher at Penfield Children’s Center, as well as the communications lead for the Wisconsin chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America.  Her policy expertise is in early childhood education, education reform and gun violence prevention. 

More Resources:

Protecting Your Child from Gun Injury: A Child’s Curiosity Can Lead to Severe Injury or Death,” from the Massachusetts Medical Society

Your Child is on the Move: Reduce the Risk of Gun Injury,” from the American Association of Pediatrics

Raising Safe Kids: One Stage at a Time,” from Safe Kids Worldwide

Luo , Michael and Mike McIntire. “Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll,” The New York Times, 28 September 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/us/children-and-guns-the-hidden-toll.html?_r=1>.

Pearle, Lauren. “Kids and Guns: By the Numbers,” ABC News, 29 January 2014. Web. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/01/kids-and-guns-by-the-numbers/>.

“Report to the Nation: Trends in Unintentional Childhood Injury Mortality, 1987-2000.” National Safe Kids Campaign.  May 2003.   <http://www.co.ho.md.us/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=4294968673>.

“State Advocacy Focus: Safe Storage of Firearms.” American Academy of Pediatrics, December 2013. Web. 25 February 2014. <http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/state-advocacy/Documents/Safe%20Storage.pdf>.

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