May 2001

From University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Parents not locking up guns, new study shows

CHAPEL HILL - Parents do a reasonably good job of making their homes safe for children -- with one major exception, new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill research indicates. As a group, they don't lock guns away where kids can't get at them.

"As part of a larger study, we conducted a baseline survey to look at injury prevention practices among 286 parents who visited a hospital emergency room," said Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley, assistant professor of community pediatrics and internal medicine at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "These practices included having their children wear seat belts in cars and helmets on bicycles, maintaining functioning smoke detectors and fire extinguishers at home and keeping electrical outlets covered and water heaters not turned up too hot."

Coyne-Beasley and UNC School of Public Health graduate students Kara McGee and Renee M. Johnson, limited their current analysis to the 94 people who owned guns and also had children under age 7. Among the findings was that 36 percent of people reporting gun ownership and younger children in the home admitted to keeping their firearms loaded. Forty-five percent didn't store their guns locked, and 57 percent failed to store them in a locked compartment.

By comparison, 99 percent had a smoke alarm, 72 percent capped electrical outlets and 72 percent kept poisonous substances out of children's reach.

"This surprised me because when I designed the study, I hypothesized that people who exercised good general safety habits would also probably have good firearm safety habits as well," the physician said.

McGee, a research assistant and injury prevention counselor for the study, is scheduled to present the findings May 1 at a meeting of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Accidents aren't the only reason to keep children safe from guns, Coyne-Beasley said. Nationally, among young people ages 10 to 18, about 55 percent of gun deaths in 1998 were homicides, and 39 percent were suicides.

"In North Carolina, the majority of gun deaths among these youngsters are actually suicides," she said. "This has important implications for parents because most teens that age who commit suicide do it with a gun they find in the home. If it is difficult to get hold of a firearm because it is locked up, unloaded and the ammunition locked and stored separately, they will have a cooling off period before they can hurt themselves. Safe storage of firearms may be particularly important in North Carolina to prevent youth suicides."

Overall, in North Carolina in 1998, 39 percent of firearm deaths were homicides, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, 48 percent of the deaths were suicides while 13 percent were preventable accidents.

Among all ages in this country, 53 percent of all firearm deaths that year were suicides.

"Our take-home message is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that the safest way to avoid a firearm injury in the home is to remove guns from the home," Coyne-Beasley said. "If you must keep a gun there, the safest thing to do is to unload the weapon and keep it locked up. Then keep the ammunition locked up too and stored separately from the gun. You should also ask about the presence of guns in places where your children play or visit."

She recommended gun locks, locked boxes, gun safes and gun cabinets, but stopped short of endorsing trigger locks.

"No one knows how effective these things are, and there have been some problems with them," she said. "If trigger locks aren't on properly, weapons sometimes can discharge anyway."

Coyne-Beasley, an affiliated faculty member of the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center, said the goal of the larger study was to improve injury prevention practices among parents by counseling those who visited emergency rooms.

Participants with small children received safety counseling and such devices as electrical outlet covers, refrigerator magnets bearing emergency telephone numbers for poison control centers, fire escape plans and batteries for smoke detectors and gun locks.

Note: Before the meeting, Coyne-Beasley can be reached at 919-843-9942 (w) or 489-0603 (h). During the meeting, she can be reached through Ed Fishel at 410-649-6018 or 328-8919.

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC News Services











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