More American families are bringing handguns into their homes, a trend that appears to be having deadly consequences for young children, according to a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics.
The study found that as handgun ownership has increased in the United States, so has the gun-related death rate among children under the age of 6.
“This study is a loud and compelling call to action for all pediatricians to start open discussions around firearm ownership with all families and share data on the significant risks associated with unsafe storage,” write the physician-authors of an invited commentary that accompanies the study.
“It is an even louder call to firearm manufacturers to step up and innovate, test and design smart handguns, inoperable by young children, to prevent unintentional injury,” the doctors add.
A troubling trend
Firearm-related injuries are the third leading cause of injury-related deaths among U.S. children aged 0 to 17, claiming about 1,300 children’s lives each year.
The rate at which children are dying from gun injuries is lower today than in past decades, primarily because of reductions in overall firearm ownership. But a troubling trend has emerged during the past decade: The firearm-related death rate has stagnated among children aged 12 and younger.
That trend is largely driven by an almost doubling of the firearm-related death rate among very young children aged 1 to 4. Between 2006 and 2016, the rate jumped from 0.36 to 0.63 deaths per 100,000 children.
Gun injuries were the fifth most common cause of injury-related deaths in this age group in 2016, with 101 deaths in all. (Drowning, with 425 deaths, was the leading cause.)
The authors of the current study wanted to see if changes in the types of guns that families keep in their home — specifically, a switch to smaller firearms, such as handguns — could explain why the death rate among very young children has not kept pace with the general decline in gun ownership.
As they point out, handguns are easier for young children to hold, and toddlers as young as 2 years old have enough hand strength to operate them. Furthermore, because handguns are usually bought for personal protection, they are more likely to be stored loaded with ammunition and in an easily accessible location, such as a bedroom drawer.
Most gun deaths in very young children are unintentional. The child comes upon the gun in the home, thinks it’s a toy and pulls the trigger.
For the study, a research team led by Kate Pricket, a family sociologist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, analyzed U.S. data on gun ownership and child mortality for the years 1976 through 2016.
They looked specifically at gun ownership among U.S. families with children aged 1 to 5. And because of data limitations, they focused on white families.
Their analysis found that the proportion of white families with young children who owned firearms declined from 50 percent in 1976 to 45 percent in 2016. But the proportion that owned handguns increased, from 25 percent to 32 percent.
That meant that 72 percent of firearm-owning families with young children had a handgun in 2016.
The researchers then looked to see if that rise in handgun ownership was associated with the increase in firearm-related deaths among young children.
They found that for each 1 percent increase in the proportion of white families with young children who owned any kind of firearm, there was an almost a half percent rise in the firearm-related death rate among 1- to 5-year olds.
They also found that this association was “primarily driven by changes in the proportion of families who owned handguns.”
An ‘extremely dangerous’ combination
This study was observational, so it can’t prove definitively that the increase in handgun ownership among families with small children is behind the rise in gun-related deaths in that age group.
Still, as the doctors who wrote the accompanying commentary point out, mixing “the small curious hands of a young child” with “the easily accessible and operable, loaded handgun” is an “extremely dangerous” combination.
Both the commentary’s authors and the study’s authors stress that all gun owners with children should make sure their guns are stored unloaded and under lock and key — even if they have given their children strict instructions not to touch the gun. Furthermore, all ammunition should be stored — and locked up — in a separate location.
Those same safety precautions need to be taken by grandparents and others who have children in their home from time to time. As other research has shown, about a third of all unintentional shootings of children occur in the homes of their friends, neighbors or relatives.
Unfortunately, more than half of U.S. households with firearms do not store their guns safely. All too often, that lack of precaution ends in tragedy.
FMI: You’ll find the study and the commentary on Pediatrics’ website. For advice on how to keep your children safe from unintentional gun injuries — including from guns in other people’s homes — go to the American Academy of Pediatricians’ website.