As summer quickly approaches, our pre-coronavirus lives feel like a lifetime ago. While we wear masks in public spaces and maintain social distancing, a persistent thought in the backs of our minds is that suicide attempts and unintentional gun injuries among children and adolescents haven’t stopped because we are in the midst of a pandemic.
As a public health researcher and a pediatrician specializing in critical care, we work to reduce gun-related injuries and deaths among children in different ways, but we share a common bond as mothers and gun owners. We understand the desire to keep our families safe as we adapt to these difficult and unprecedented times, but the high number of gun purchases in the U.S. during the pandemic has us worried.
Despite our best efforts to step up to the new challenges brought forth by COVID-19, children have found themselves with more unsupervised time at home than ever before. Even as many states slowly begin to reopen, with remote learning ending as we transition to summer break, children may remain socially isolated, struggling with anxiety or depression, facing the cancellation of summer programs or the loss of summer job opportunities.
Prior to the pandemic, an estimated one-third of children in the U.S. lived in a home with a gun, and fewer than half of guns were stored safely. While parents may think children do not know where guns are stored, roughly 75 percent of children know where the gun is and about one-third have handled the gun. During the pandemic, gun sales, especially among first-time buyers, have surged, exposing more children to potential risk. While we work to protect our communities, we must also protect our children from the dangers in our own homes. Otherwise the headlines of children finding unsecured guns and harming themselves or others will continue.
The safest home for children is a home without guns. In homes in which a gun is present, safe storage can reduce unintentional injury by children, while still providing responsible gun owners the ability to defend themselves and their family. At a minimum, guns should be stored unloaded and separate from ammunition, but children and other at-risk individuals in the home are increasingly protected by the application of an external locking device (like a cable lock) or by placing the unloaded gun into a drawer or wall safe.
Additionally, some police departments and gun shops offer the option to, at least temporarily, store your gun outside the home. Despite not all gun owners storing their firearms safely, public opinion polling demonstrates that it is a well-supported practice across demographics. Nearly 75 percent of adults in the U.S., including 60 percent of gun owners, support requiring people to lock up their guns when not in use to prevent unsupervised access by children or teens.
Safe gun storage has been shown to reduce suicide by youth and others who may be at risk in the home. By practicing safe storage, we can limit access to such lethal means both during times of acute crisis and as we adapt to our new pandemic norms. We encourage you to reach out to your friends, loved ones and neighbors and continue using available technologies to stay socially connected while we maintain a safe physical distance.
But let’s also go the extra step and ask our loved ones if there are firearms in the home and whether they are safely stored. Ask friends who are still isolating; ask people whose homes you may be visiting as your areas open up or if you choose to form “quaranteams”; and continue to ask about the presence of guns in the homes your children visit when life eventually returns to normal.
Over the last three months, we have risen to the challenges presented by COVID-19. As we continue to do so, we must also ask ourselves to keep our children safe from the dangers right at home: unintentional deaths and suicide by firearms. Safely storing guns can help keep them out of the hands of children, teens or other at-risk individuals and promote safety in our homes as we protect ourselves and our families.
Cassandra Crifasi is an assistant professor and deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Twitter: @DrCrifasi
Katherine Hoops is an assistant professor of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and core faculty in the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Twitter: @KatherineHoops