Handgun ownership is on the rise among American families with young kids, and a new study suggests this is contributing to more childhood deaths from gunshot injuries.
The shift to more families with firearms having handguns in their homes “may be partially responsible for the doubling in the firearm-related mortality rate among very young children – 1- to 5-year-olds – over the past decade,” said study leader Kate Prickett, director of the Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and Children at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Between 1976 and 2016, the proportion of U.S. families with young kids who owned any kind of firearm dropped from 50 percent to 45 percent among whiles and from 38 percent to 6 percent among blacks, the study found.
But handgun ownership among American families with young children climbed from 25 to 32 percent over those four decades. And overall, 72 percent of these firearm-owning families have handguns.
Firearm-related fatalities are a leading cause of death among children in the U.S., researchers note in Pediatrics. And despite historical declines in gun ownership, firearm deaths among young children are rising.
The new study’s findings “are a wake-up call about gun storage,” Prickett said by email. “The only safe way to have a firearm in the home is to have it locked in a gun safe, unloaded, with ammunition stored separately.”
Prickett’s team looked at death rates for every 100,000 American and African-American children ages 1 to 5 in the U.S.
Over the four-decade study, the proportion of injury-related childhood deaths caused by guns rose from 2 to 5 percent.
African-American children had firearm-related fatality rates three times higher than Americankids, even though this was still a very rare cause of death.
Overall, fewer than one in 100,000 American children under five years old and no more than about two in 100,000 African-American kids died from gun injuries during the study. Boys were more likely to die this way than girls.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether shifts in gun ownership directly impact changes in fatality rates from firearms. Researchers also didn’t know whether injuries were intentional or accidental.
Even so, the results highlight a need for doctors to talk to parents about gun ownership, and to tailor safety messages to family circumstances, said the coauthor of an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kavita Parikh of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.
“This discussion may (and should) vary based on factors unique to the family – for example, race/ethnicity, urban/rural home environment, rationale for owning the firearm, ages of members in the home, domestic violence and mental health illness in people who may have access to the firearm,” Parikh said by email.
Handguns may be more dangerous for young children because they’re easier to grasp than rifles. And unlike larger firearms that might be locked away and taken out only for hunting or recreational use, some families might have handguns in places that are easier to access because they’re concerned about home invasions.
“Handguns, however, represent a much more dangerous discovery because they are small enough for a curious child to handle,” Parikh said. “Children’s hands are strong enough to grip a loaded gun.”
Gun safety conversations should happen before babies are old enough to move or reach for firearms in the home, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Very young children are very curious and as they explore a place – whether it’s inside or outside the home – they pick up new things,” Parikh said. “They forever place small objects inside their mouths or ears.”