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At Home, Gun Safety Slackens as Risk Grows

Friday, August 11, 2006

Parents with guns in their homes become less vigilant about how they store those guns as their children grow older, a new study suggests -- even though older children are at far more risk of being harmed by those guns than younger children are.

Firearms are present in about one-third of U.S. households. About 1.6 million children live in homes where guns are loaded and not locked up, according to a 2002 phone survey.

A number of public education campaigns -- including one depicting a child-size coffin with the caption, "Buy a box for your gun, not for your kid" -- have drawn attention to the risk of leaving loaded guns within reach of very young children. But the new study, led by Renee M. Johnson of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, suggests that more attention ought to be paid to keeping those weapons away from teenagers.

Starting with data from the National Firearms Study of 2004, Johnson and her colleagues analyzed responses from the 392 people who had at least one gun in the house and at least one child younger than 18. They found that 29 percent of parents whose children were younger than 13 did not lock up guns, compared with 42 percent of parents of teenagers. Similarly, parents of teenagers were more likely than parents of younger kids to leave their guns loaded.

That's backward, Johnson said: "Teenagers are exponentially more likely than younger children to die from firearm injury, especially suicide."

Moreover, studies have shown that two-thirds of guns in suicide attempts and unintentional injuries among children and adolescents were stored in the home of the victim.

Many parents assume that adolescents are "old enough to exhibit good judgment around firearms," the Johnson report notes in the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. All too often, that is a fatal misjudgment.

-- Rick Weiss

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