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Gun storage laws save children's lives

A new report on gun violence in the U.S. offers a comprehensive view on firearm-related deaths

As pediatricians, we partner with parents to protect children. We recommend they buckle children into their car seats, we advise that they snap on their children’s helmets when they ride their bicycles, we also counsel them on safe storage of firearms in the home. There are many accidents we cannot prevent, but we must do our best to prevent the injuries that we can.

And we can prevent many gun injuries in children and adolescents. One powerful means of protecting our children from gun injury — and the way that is most deeply rooted in evidence — is through mandatory safe storage and child access prevention laws (CAP laws). A gun is safely stored when it is stored unloaded in a locked safe or with a locking device and when ammunition is kept in a separate location.

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Today, one in three children in the United States lives in a home with a firearm. However, fewer than half of gun owners report safely storing all of their guns. When 75 percent of children report knowing where the firearms are stored in their homes, a failure to store guns safely can result in tragedy.

According to the CDC, in 2017, firearms were responsible for the deaths of almost 40,000 people across the United States, over 8,000 of whom were under 24 years old. Safe storage practices have proven effective in reducing firearm injuries.

In 2005, researchers interviewed owners of guns used in adolescent suicides and suicide attempts as well as owners of guns not used in suicide attempts or unintentional shootings. The guns used in adolescent suicides and suicide attempts were more likely to have been stored unsafely. Simply put, an unsafely stored firearm increases the risk of suicide. Furthermore, most guns used in school shootings were obtained from the shooter’s home or that of a relative.

When safe storage becomes law in the form of child access prevention laws, children and adolescents are protected against unintentional injury and self-inflicted injury. Implementation of “strong” child access prevention laws, those that allow felony prosecution of gun owners who fail to appropriately secure firearms, was associated with significant reduction in unintentional and self-inflicted pediatric firearm injury.

Child access prevention laws are good policy: They do not pose an undue burden to gun owners, and they work. Federal law requires that a safe storage device, such a trigger lock or cable lock, be provided to gun owners upon purchase of a firearm from a licensed dealer, but federal law does not require that firearms be stored safely. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted child access prevention laws. Currently, Maryland’s CAP law states that “a person may not store or leave a loaded firearm in a location where the person knew or should have known that an unsupervised child would gain access to the firearm.” If this law is violated, it is a misdemeanor offense penalized by a fine of not more than $1,000.

House Bill 468/Senate Bill 441 greatly strengthens our current child access prevention law. It improves upon the current legislation in several ways: First, it expands the current law by requiring that even unloaded firearms be stored with a locking device or in a safe. Second, it raises the standard from knowing that a child “would gain access” to knowing that a child “could gain access.” Third, it changes the definition of a “child” to be a person under age 18 rather than under age 16. Finally, it increases the severity of the penalty for violating the law to include imprisonment for not more than two years and/or a fine of not more than $1,000.

As pediatricians, we have dedicated our careers to the health and wellness of children. And as pediatricians in emergency rooms and intensive care units, we have witnessed the horrors of pediatric gun injury. We have made exhaustive efforts to save children injured by guns. Despite our best efforts, we have stood over the bodies of children whose lives were cut short or whose lives have been permanently altered. We have wept with parents who have lost their children or whose children’s lives will never be the same. We have had enough.

Drs. Katherine Hoops (Twitter: @KatherineHoops) and Richard Lichenstein write on behalf of the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (@MarylandAAP), Gun Violence as a Public Health Epidemic Task Force.

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