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Q&A: What a major new study on gun storage laws tells us about keeping kids safe

Q&A: What a major new study on gun storage laws tells us about keeping kids safe

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Shootings are the second leading cause of death among American youth, and the numbers are climbing. Guns killed more than 500 children in 2017, a 50% increase since 2009. A growing body of research points to one simple way to save kids’ lives: laws requiring safer gun storage at home.

An analysis of 13,967 gun deaths of children under age 15, published this week, is one of the most exhaustive studies to make the case for strict gun storage laws. The study, spanning 26 years, found that states with laws regulating gun storage in households with minors had significant reductions in child deaths. States with the strictest regulations showed the greatest declines.

Only 25 states have “child access prevention” laws and the details — penalties, age cutoff and stringency — vary widely. Nine states have the loosest requirements, holding gun owners liable only if they provide a gun to a child or teen. Other states hold owners liable for improperly storing guns under different scenarios. In some states, owners are liable if a child gets the gun and shoots it. In others, it’s if a child gets hold of the gun. And in still others, owners are liable if a child could possibly obtain an improperly stored gun. This last category of laws, the toughest, was associated with a 29% reduction in gun deaths among children, including homicides and suicides, and a stunning 59% reduction in unintentional deaths.

“Locking up guns away from children really does keep them safe,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who was not involved in the study.

The new research, done by a team at Boston Children’s Hospital, was published in JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers estimate that if every state had the strongest laws governing gun storage, 4,000 young lives could have been saved over the study period. A commentary accompanying the study notes that only three of 10 gun-owning households with children keep the weapons unloaded, separate from ammunition, locked and safely out of reach, according to recent surveys.

Webster has spent the past 30 years studying evidence-based approaches to preventing gun violence. He spoke with Children's Health Matters about the latest research, the gun threats that worry him most, and how journalists can improve coverage of gun violence and kids. This is an edited version of his comments.

How does the new study add to what earlier research has shown?

The findings are largely consistent with prior studies of child access prevention laws, but this was the first to look within strata of what is prohibited — unsafe storage, unsafe storage leading to access, or unsafe storage leading to injury.  It was also nice to see that the reductions in firearm death rates were observed during the first seven years the laws were in place. This suggests the laws reset norms around safe gun storage over that period.

Why are these laws effective?

I don’t know how many people are literally fearful that they are going to go to jail or pay a fine if they don’t store their gun properly, but I think people generally want to be law-abiding citizens. If they think a law is fair and makes sense they’ll comply. 

What are the chief limitations of this study?

It didn't look at the older teens [over 14]. Some of the laws extend into those years, so that’s really important. The risk goes up dramatically as kids get older and it's not because they don't understand how guns work. It’s because of the developmental things that come with adolescence — risk taking, impulsive behavior, all those sorts of things. The very first study I did on this issue — it was actually part of my doctoral dissertation — I did surveys and focus groups with parents about how they thought about risk in the home. One of the biggest takeaways for me was that many gun-owning parents don't really understand the developmental risk relevant to access to firearms. They tended to think, “Oh yes, when my very young child simply doesn't understand what guns can do … then of course you have to keep them locked away. But look, when the kids start to grow up and they're 10, 11, 12 years old, they understand right from wrong and they like their guns, so it’s fine.”

The JAMA Pediatrics commentary noted that the study didn’t track injuries. Why is that important?

With unintentional shootings and assault-related injuries, people survive the vast majority of incidents. There's good reason to think these laws may be very impactful on non-fatal injuries. Some people might dismiss the risk of fatalities because it’s relatively low. If you could add in non-fatalities it may make a difference in how people think about these laws. But there currently is no true capacity on any large scale to track nonfatal firearm injuries. It’s something I talk about a lot with reporters when I talk about what’s needed in gun violence research. 

Most public attention — and media coverage — on gun violence and children focuses on school shootings. Is there a relationship between those events and household gun storage?

The vast majority of times, a student who attends the school is doing the shooting. The vast majority of times they’re getting the guns from home that were insecure. And a very large share of the shooters have a lot of their own social and mental issues. I think we would have far better outcomes with more mental health access, and if schools put their focus on how to best identify the kids who are struggling and get them support. Reporters can shine a spotlight on parents’ responsibility for securing their firearms and schools' responsibilities for helping kids who are in crisis.

How did you get into this line of research?

I came to Johns Hopkins to get my doctoral degree. I didn’t come to study gun violence but this was during the late '80s and early ’90s and Baltimore, like many cities around the country, was facing a crisis, an epidemic of homicides involving guns. Over just a few years, we had like a three-fold increase in the rate at which black males ages 15 to 24 were getting killed by guns. It was very apparent how difficult it was to do anything positive in public health if the main concern in the communities you want to work with — and the number one cause of premature mortality — is getting shot. 

What gun policy issues keep you up at night? 

Ghost guns. If you have a few tools at home and are somewhat handy, you can assemble your own guns with kits you order online. So all the laws and regulations go out the window. People can build assault rifles and any number of kinds of firearms with no regulatory oversight at all. That keeps me awake. We have to very rapidly come up with better laws and regulations and responses, or we’re going to be in trouble.

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