By Clinton W. Anderson, PhD (Interim Executive Director, Public Interest Directorate, American Psychological Association)
Psychologists are recognized as having important knowledge about psychological health and development. That is why parents routinely seek our advice on a wide range of issues affecting their children’s well-being. However, protecting children from gun violence is a rarely broached topic. June 21 is National ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Day. Launched in 2000 by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ASK campaign reminds health professionals, parents, and caregivers of the importance of asking if there are unlocked guns in the homes where children live and play.
Once this question is asked, a frank discussion about protecting children from the dangers of gun violence can begin. Although the conversation may be awkward, having it could potentially save their child’s life. And yes, psychologists and other health professionals are well within their rights to do so. A federal appeals court in Florida recently ruled that state laws prohibiting doctor-patient discussions of guns violated the First Amendment. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors and nurses address firearm safety as part of their routine guidance with patients and parents. As psychologists, we have extensive education and training that equip us to understand and communicate the dangers of guns in the home. Regardless of our areas of expertise or professional setting, we have a vital role to play.
1. Firearm safety is a public health issue:
- Every day, 93 people on average die from gun violence while another 216 people are shot and survive their injuries.
- In 2014, 33,594 people died from gun violence in the United States; 64% of those deaths were suicides.
Gun violence has leached into every aspect of our American way of life. It occurs in every setting whether Americans are at work, at play, at worship, at school, or at home. Our efforts to prevent gun violence need to be informed by the best evidence.
2. Children often have far too easy access to guns:
- In America, 1 out of 3 homes with kids has guns and nearly 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked, loaded gun.
- Every day, 7 children and teens die from gun violence while another 40 are shot and survive.
- Eighty percent of unintentional firearm deaths of kids under 15 occur in a home.
- Deaths and injuries from gun violence spike for children under 5, with 3-year-olds being the most common shooters and victims among young children.
- A recent study shows that there has been a significant uptick in firearm suicides by children.
Parents should be aware that guns are like Christmas presents – kids will find them no matter how well hidden they are. Many parents have unrealistic expectations about their kids’ behavior toward guns. High-quality research shows that training kids to stay away from or not handle guns does not work. We must communicate to parents that the best preventive measure against gun injury or death among children is removing guns from the household entirely.
3. Developmental factors contribute to risk of gun violence for children:
Many parents are unaware of the developmental factors that make keeping firearms in the home risky for children. For instance, they underestimate the inquisitiveness of young children who are primed to explore and test boundaries. Many don’t even realize that 2- or 3-year-olds possess the strength to pull a gun’s trigger. Similarly, during the teen years, traits like impulsivity, a sense of invulnerability, and temporary but intense feelings of despondency contribute to risk of firearm use. Some experts counsel that it is best not to have guns at all in a home with teenagers. Psychologists and other health professionals can help parents understand these risk factors.
4. Children with behavioral problems are at greater risk:
Parents with children showing behavioral health problems should consider that these problems may elevate risk of harm when there are accessible firearms in the home. If they have children or teens with mood disorders, substance abuse (including alcohol), or a history of suicide attempts, encourage them to remove or restrict access to firearms. Arrange for the adult to talk to a psychologist or pediatrician if questions persist.
5. If guns are in the home, they should be treated like all other household dangers:
We routinely tell parents to take precautions to make their homes as safe as possible for their children. We tell them to keep household cleaners, prescription medicines, and even alcohol and cigarettes out of their children’s reach. Households and families with firearms should treat guns the same way.
- Encourage parents to store all firearms at another location – alternate storage options include:
- at another licensed gun owner’s home
- in a secure storage unit
- in a bonded warehouse for gun storage
- If adults insist on keeping firearms in the home, emphasize that it is critical to store guns unloaded, in a securely locked location, and with ammunition stored in a separate locked container. One caveat: although locked storage provides some protection, parents should know that it may not prove effective against children’s creativity, curiosity, and persistence.
- If their child will be spending time in another family’s home, advise parents to ASK whether there are guns in the home, and if so, how they are stored before sending their child over to play.
We all have a responsibility to reduce the risk of gun violence in America, particularly for our youngest citizens. It starts with you:
- Take the ASK pledge and start the conversation with those with whom you interact about firearm safety in the home
- Read APA’s recent report and resolution on gun violence prevention
- Share this gun safety tip sheet.
I would like to thank Susan Sorenson, PhD, (Director, Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence), and W. Rodney Hammond, PhD, (retired Director of the Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control) for sharing their input and expertise for this blog post.
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