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.
"Teaching kids to be safe around guns doesn't work" in preventing accidents, said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Studies have found that children exposed to Eddie Eagle programs are no less likely to play with guns than children who don't take the class, he added.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam disputed that.
"This is probably the first time I've heard that education is a bad thing and not effective," he said. The Eddie Eagle program was developed about 10 years ago by a psychologist and has been endorsed by the Justice Department, he said. Its adoption by school districts around the country, Arulanandam said, "is a testament to its effectiveness."
He also declined to comment on the latest study, saying that NRA researchers hadn't analyzed it yet.Dead Silent
Americans own about 200 million firearms, and 35 percent of homes nationwide are believed to contain at least one gun, according to federal estimates.
In the Washington area, gun ownership is highest in Virginia, which mirrors the national average, while an estimated 22 percent of Maryland homes have a gun. In the District, where handguns are outlawed, people in 4 percent of homes report owning a firearm, according to a survey conducted in 2001 by North Carolina health officials. Gun ownership is highest in the rural South and parts of the West.
Both Maryland and Virginia are among 18 states that have passed laws requiring parents to store weapons so children can't gain easy access to them.
Last September, a study by researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 1.7 million children live in homes with loaded, unlocked guns. More than 500 children die annually from accidental gunshots: Some shoot themselves, while others kill friends or siblings, often after discovering a gun.
Earlier this month the 10-year-old son of a New York City police officer died after he shot himself in the face with his father's loaded revolver. The boy found the weapon on a shelf in the basement while looking for a ball his mother had hidden.
Last February a 13-year-old boy shot himself with a semiautomatic handgun in the home of his guardian, a Prince George's County police officer.
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that pediatricians ask parents about guns in the home as part of what it calls "anticipatory guidance" -- attempts to keep children safe in cars, on bikes, around swimming pools and elsewhere. Some groups are encouraging parents to ask other adults in homes where children will be playing whether guns are present and how they are stored -- a conversation experts say they know many parents are reluctant to have for fear of seeming intrusive or alarmist.
Fairfax pediatrician James Baugh said he stopped asking parents about guns because many seemed annoyed and most told him they knew what to do. Occasionally, he said, a parent told him she kept a gun under her pillow.
Stuart Weich, a partner in one of Montgomery County's biggest pediatric practices, said he often asks gun questions, especially when he interviews teenagers whom he sees separately from their parents.
"In 15 years I can only think of a handful of parents who actually admitted it," said Weich. "I know they're out there.
Hopkins's Vernick said that a public service campaign known as "ASK" -- Asking Saves Kids -- is trying to persuade parents to inquire about guns in the homes of their children's playmates.
"This is about slowly trying to change norms," he said. "Twenty years ago no one would have thought it was normal or socially acceptable to have a designated driver or take away a friend's keys." ·
Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. For a look at state child access prevention laws, seehttp://www.washingtonpost.com/health. Join study co-author Matthew Miller at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com for a Live Online chat on gun safety and children.