Spurred by Accidental Child Gun Deaths, Medical Experts Press for Open Dialogue

Members of the Marin County Moms Demand Action group march against gun violence on the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jen Reidy.
Members of the Marin County Moms Demand Action group march against gun violence on the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jen Reidy.

Parents usually like to make sure a few things are settled before sending their child off to a friend’s house for a play date.

They want to make sure the swimming pool is fenced off. Understand the supervision situation. Ensure that peanut butter sandwiches won’t be served if there’s a nut allergy.

But what about whether the home has firearms? Increasingly, experts think it’s a question parents should ask, despite how heated and emotionally charged discussions about guns can get.

When children come across an unlocked, loaded gun, it can have deadly consequences. In September, a 14-year-old boy near Bakersfield died after accidentally shooting himself with a shotgun. In July, a 3-year-old girl in Lemoore shot herself in the head when discovering a loaded handgun in an apartment bedroom where she was visiting.

Such incidents are preventable, and child health organizations and the wider medical community have begun to urge for greater transparency about firearm access.

A preventable tragedy

An Oct. 14 analysis by The Associated Press and USA Today found that a child is killed by a firearm every other day. The Not an Accident Index, compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, says there has been at least 200 shootings in 2016 in which a child was accidently shot and killed.

But parents have plenty of ways to ensure their children are safe. That’s the message Jen Reidy makes in advocating for the Be Smart program, which encourages parents to talk about safe gun storage and access. Reidy, the principal of Reidy Communications in Marin County, grew up in Newtown, Conn. and was shocked into action by the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six staff members at an elementary school.

“I’ll never forget — my daughter, who was 11 at the time, got out of the school bus and (I was) thinking ‘how are we going to tell her about this?’” Reidy recalled.

“How do I tell my daughter she’s going to be OK at school? This really hit us hard.”

After that event, Reid discovered Moms Demand Action and felt a kinship with fellow mothers that were trying to thwart the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, which has long opposed such mandatory safety measures, in the past calling them “unnecessary” and a potential threat to personal defense.

The Be Smart program encourages parents to ask if a potential playmate’s parents or caregiver has unsecured guns at home. It’s designed to be the same conversation one would have about allergies or other typical safety procedures in a home.

Several example question sets are offered, such as, “Before I drop off John for his play date, I just wanted to check to see if you have a pet, a pool or firearms in your house. I want to make sure he knows your safety rules.”

Or a more specific approach: “May I ask, if you have guns in your home, are they locked and inaccessible to the kids?”

Reidy gives the presentations at schools and other events, using role play to help parents practice having conversations about guns that are nonthreatening and focused on keeping their children safe.

“I often start out with saying this is not a political conversation, it’s all about keeping our kids safe,” she said. “We can agree as parents that we want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe.”

If a conversation gets heated, one way to de-escalate it is for parents to remind the other caregiver how children’s natural curiosity can lead to getting into something they’re not supposed to.

“You know it’s resonated when parents come back with stories about how they started these conversations and how (they found out that) guns are stored in someone’s home,” Reidy said.

California has among the nation’s strictest gun laws, which also include regulations regarding storage. According to the State Attorney General’s Office, a gun owner can be held liable if a minor accesses their weapon and misuses it. Firearms should be stored in a locked container or with a locking device that keeps it from functioning, the office says.

State law also requires that all new or used firearms sold by a dealer include a cable or trigger lock, or customers are required to purchase an approved lock at the time of sale. The only exception is if you provide an affidavit proving you have a California-approved gun safe in your home.

‘Stop, don’t touch, and tell an adult’

The National Rifle Association has in many states opposed legislation to compel safe storage or trigger locks, calling them ineffective and a slippery slope to more onerous legislation.

The organization points instead to Eddie Eagle, a program that teaches children to “stop, don’t touch, and tell an adult” should they encounter a gun. A series of videos and other teaching materials feature the cartoon fowl and his Wing Team to try and drive home the message to a younger audience.

The NRA has heard anecdotal reports from families that the program is effective, said Jason J. Brown, a media relations manager with the NRA.

“These testimonials relate incidents in which children encountered guns, but, because of what they learned in the Eddie Eagle program, they sought help from an adult and avoided injury,” he said.

Brown said 28,000 children have received the training in California during the last year through partnerships with law enforcement agencies in Yuma City, Simi Valley, El Dorado and Rancho Cordova.

Additionally, the organization offers a series of firearm storage recommendations. It lists trigger locks, security cases, locking steel gun cabinets and standard cases as options based upon one’s storage needs.

The California Attorney General, meanwhile, recommends always storing a firearm unloaded, using a safety device (such as a trigger lock), in a locked container. Ammunition should also be stored in a separate, locked container.

Such storage recommendations are critical for any gun owner, according to Lt. Brett Hershberger of the Clovis Police Department.

“It’s every gun owner’s responsibility to keep their guns securely locked so they can’t be stolen,” he said. “Every time a criminal steals a gun from somebody who is legally allowed to own it and possess it, it looks bad for the whole gun-owning community. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals.”

The medical community weighs in

Medical experts have begun to wade more deeply into the question of how children become victims or involved in gun violence.

For example, UC Davis recently launched the nation’s first firearm research center. The American Medical Association has called gun violence a “public health crisis” and called for Congress to lift the nearly 20-year restriction on government-funded research.

Others see a culture of violence as the culprit. Dr. Philip Hyden, the medical director of the Child Advocacy Program at Valley Children’s Hospital, regularly evaluates children for potential child abuse cases. He said the medical community has taken greater interest in gun safety because of the number of children who end up injured by firearms due to parental negligence.

Teaching children to avoid guns via school programs may be one thing, but parents and legislators must take a serious look at what the proper role of firearms are in a household or a child’s life, Hyden said.

“As a pediatrician it’s my job to make sure people are keeping children safe,” he said. “People who have care over children must instruct on the dangers of a gun and what the potential for harm can be. If children are in a home where hunting or target shooting is a regular activity, there must be a high capacity for understanding the dangers of guns. It’s not a simple thing to see a gun, pick it up and shoot it.”

The end goal is more conversation and awareness, a sentiment that nearly all sides share in a debate where it’s difficult to find common ground. For Reidy, that conversation, particularly amongst parents who want to see better gun safety awareness, is key.

“That’s never going to be a question you’ll regret having,” she said.

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