Saturday, July 2, 2005

John Blaschke and his three stepdaughters live in one of the millions of American households with both children and guns. The girls were introduced to guns by their father, who is also a gun owner.

All along they have gotten this message: Before you touch a gun, you should know what to do around it. Make sure it isn’t loaded. Don’t ever point it at anyone.

“Education is a very big part,” says Mr. Blaschke, an elementary and middle school teacher who lives in Northern Virginia. “Guns and families can coexist. It boils down to responsibility. A responsible gun owner needs to make sure his children develop a respect for [the guns].”

These days, two of Mr. Blaschke’s stepdaughters — Meghan Nelson, 14, and Darby Nelson, 10 — are safe as well as skilled with guns. They practice at the shooting range with Mr. Blaschke. Darby is thinking of entering a competition. The third stepdaughter is not interested in guns.

“John and Darby have really bonded doing things like this,” says the girls’ mother, Sara.

Estimates vary, but the general statistic from public safety groups is that about 40 percent of American households with children also have guns.

There is evidence that many families are not using the diligence of the Blaschkes — downplaying the mystique of firearms, following safety rules and locking the guns in a safe. In 13 percent of the homes with children and firearms, the guns often are kept loaded and unlocked, according to a 2001 survey by the Rand Corp., a research group.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a child or teen is killed in a gun-related accident or suicide every eight hours. In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, more than 800 children ages 14 and younger were treated in hospital emergency rooms for unintentional gun injuries.

The gun debate is a heated issue in America. Proponents for both sides agree, though, that the safety of children is paramount.

“It is incumbent on every gun owner to determine an effective means of safe storage,” says Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association. “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all to gun safety and storage. Sadly, human nature is such that we can’t legislate responsibility.”

Safe storage?

John Lacey, spokesman for the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, a nonprofit gun owners’ group that advocates safe storage, says keeping guns locked up is the best way to keep them out of a child’s, teen’s or criminal’s hands.

“Our take is ‘Love your gun; lock it up,’” Mr. Lacey says. “There is an increase in suicide and injury when guns are not stored safely. There is also a greater chance of guns being stolen if they are not locked up. Stolen guns are one of the primary ways criminals get ahold of weapons.”

Eighteen states — including Maryland and Virginia — have safe storage (also called child access prevention) laws. These laws hold parents liable for children using a firearm unsupervised.

States with safe storage laws average 26 percent fewer stolen guns than states without them, Mr. Lacey says. A 2004 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research says suicide rates for teens ages 14 to 17 showed an 8 percent reduction because of safe storage laws.

However, as with many issues pertaining to gun ownership, safe storage can be controversial. Many gun owners say having their weapons unloaded or locked away would defeat the purpose of having a gun for protection. Others say safe storage laws are not necessary because accidental child firearm deaths are only a small fraction of all gun deaths.

There is even debate on the best method of child-safe storage. Trigger locks, cable locks and gun cabinets all have pros and cons, Mr. Lacey says.

“Our group sees scientific evidence that the child access prevention laws can be beneficial,” says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “The issue is compliance. We would rather see prevention rather than a criminal response after a death.”

Mr. Vernick says changes to the gun itself that would make it impossible for a child to operate it would go a long way toward preventing child gun accidents. Trigger locks do some of the job, but a gun owner must be depended upon to place these external devices on the gun.

Maryland is the only state that requires new guns to have a built-in locking device, Mr. Vernick says. Someday soon, we might see high-tech “smart guns” that will not fire unless an authorized user (identified via a fingerprint or code) is pulling the trigger, he adds.

Tim Bacchus is the sales manager at Gilbert’s Small Arms Range in Lorton and the father of four children younger than 16. He has a walk-in closet in his home that has been converted into a gun safe. The ammunition is stored and locked separately.

Two of Mr. Bacchus’ children go shooting with him at the range — one is not interested and one, age 9, is still too young.

“We use common sense,” Mr. Bacchus says. “Shooting at the range is OK; it is not OK otherwise.”

Education and safety

How to teach young children about guns also varies from home to home and community to community.

The NRA has used its Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program to get a safety message across to more than 18 million children since 1988. During that time, fatal gun incidents involving children younger than 8 have gone down by more than two-thirds, according to the NRA. Jorge Amselle, spokesman for the NRA, says that prevention programs such as Eddie Eagle have been a significant factor in the decline.

The basic message from Eddie Eagle is, “If you see a gun: Stop! Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.”

Critics of programs such as Eddie Eagle say it relies on changing children’s behavior, which is difficult. What’s more, it is relying on children to get the message, not adults to keep them safe.

Psychologist Marjorie Hardy has conducted several studies of children’s firearm safety programs. In her 2002 study, 34 children ages 4 to 7 were given a weeklong gun safety program. The control group of 36 children did not take the course. The children were then observed playing in a setting where they had access to a semiautomatic pistol. More than half the children played with the gun, and there was no difference in gunplay behavior between the children who had had the safety course and the ones who had not.

A study conducted at several hospitals in Atlanta and Philadelphia and published in the journal Pediatrics in 2001 sheds light on the theory that boys are particularly attracted to guns. Sixty-four boys ages 8 to 12 were put in pairs in a playroom where two water pistols and a .38-caliber handgun were concealed in drawers.

Of the 48 boys who found the handgun, 30 handled the gun and 16 of them pulled the trigger. About half the boys who found the real gun were unsure whether it was real or a toy.

The study also found that parental estimates of the boys’ interest in guns did not predict their behavior on finding the real gun or pulling the trigger. More than 90 percent of the boys who handled the .38 or pulled the trigger reported they had received some handgun safety instruction.

Mr. Vernick of Johns Hopkins says educating children about guns is still a good idea, but parents should not rely on it as the sole safety mechanism if they have guns in the house.

“Kids are curious,” he says. “Some kids can’t understand the message. Some will choose not to comply.”

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