Correction to This Article
Contrary to a May 30 Health article, 151 children ages 19 and younger were unintentionally killed by firearms in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Harm's Way: Guns and Kids

(Munz - Getty Images)

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By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Gun-owning parents who think their children don't know where firearms are kept or haven't handled the weapons without permission may be in for a disturbing surprise.

A new study involving 201 parents and an equal number of their children has found that 39 percent of kids knew the location of their parents' firearms, while 22 percent said they had handled the weapons, despite their parents' assertions to the contrary. Parents who had talked to their children about gun safety were just as likely to be misinformed about their children's actions as those who said they never had discussed the matter.

"Children are really curious and have lots of things in their home that parents have no intention of letting them find -- but they do," said Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and co-author of the study in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The gun safety study is the first to compare the responses of parents and their children, ages 5 to 14, who were interviewed separately.

Age was not a factor in whether children had handled weapons, Miller added. Five-year-olds were just as likely to report doing so as 14-year-olds.

The issue of access to guns in the home has assumed greater urgency since May 8, when two Fairfax County police officers were shot to death by Matthew Kennedy, a delusional 18-year-old armed with seven guns, among them an AK-47-style assault rifle.

Kennedy, who was killed in a shootout with police, lived with his parents and 9-year-old sister in a Centreville townhouse from which authorities said they seized 15 other guns; some were found propped against walls and two were loaded. Federal officials said last week they are investigating whether Kennedy's parents committed any weapons violations before his rampage.

While Miller's study focused on parents who brought their children to a family practice clinic in rural Alabama, experts say the Fairfax murders underscore the risks of guns in the hands of youths, especially those who, like Kennedy, are mentally ill.

"Adolescents act impulsively, whether or not they have psychiatric problems," Miller said, noting that studies have found that a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide and homicide, as well as accidental shootings. "It's up to parents -- not children -- to provide a safe environment."

He advises parents who don't want to part with their guns to lock unloaded weapons in a place separate from ammunition, which should also be locked. Guns should be accessible only by a key the parent carries at all times. If guns are stored in a safe with a combination, only parents should know the combination.

"You want to make it as hard as possible for your kid to get that gun," Miller said.

Relying solely on strategies that seek to dampen the natural curiosity of a child, such as telling children guns are dangerous, or assuming that a child will be unfailingly obedient and never touch a weapon if he finds one, is ineffective at best, Miller said.

Those are the operating principles behind many gun safety programs aimed at children, including the Eddie Eagle classes sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA), health experts say. Children are told not to touch a gun if they find one, to leave the area and tell an adult immediately.


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