Previous research suggests that parents with children older than 12 years may be more likely to store firearms unsafely than those with younger children.3,4,18
We tested those findings by investigating whether parents of adolescents were more likely to have firearms stored unsafely. Our results were consistent with those of previous research. We found that parents of adolescents were significantly more likely than parents of children 12 years or younger to have an unlocked firearm in the home (41.7% vs 28.8%; P
<.05). Findings were similar, but not statistically significant, for keeping firearms stored loaded and both loaded and unlocked.
An alternative explanation for the associations between children’s ages and firearm storage practices is that parents of older children are less likely to have safe storage practices. Because parents whose children were all aged 13 to 17 years were about 10 years older on average than parents whose children were all younger than 13 years, we sought to test this alternative explanation. When we examined storage practices by mean age of respondents, we did not find evidence that older parents had less safe firearm storage practices. When we analyzed all 392 respondents, the mean age of the respondents with unsafe storage practices was not substantially different than the mean age of the respondents without unsafe storage practices (data not shown).
A secondary finding is that children of all ages have access to unsafely stored firearms in their homes. More than one third of the parents in this sample said there was a gun in their home that was stored loaded, unlocked, or both. This represents a threat to the safety of young people.
As with most survey research, these data may be subject to bias because of inaccurate recall, lack of knowledge, or social desirability. An additional limitation is that some respondents chose not to disclose information about how firearms were stored, or about how old their children were. This resulted in missing data, including 14.3% of the respondents with missing data on the presence of a firearm stored unlocked; 10.5% with missing data on the presence of a firearm stored loaded and unlocked; and 4.8% with missing data on the presence of a firearm stored loaded. It is unclear how the results would differ with complete information. Because of this limitation, it is important for future studies examining firearm storage practices to report information on the ages of children to confirm the validity of our findings. Nevertheless, the proportion of respondents with a loaded firearm (21.7%) or an unlocked firearm (31.5%) obtained from this investigation were comparable to estimates from other studies (14%-30% and 43% respectively).1
As young people become adolescents, parents may become less vigilant about keeping firearms stored securely. This assertion is supported by the present research, as well as by studies on parents’ attitudes about firearm safety,18-20,28
in which authors concluded that parents were more likely to believe that adolescents, compared with younger children, are old enough to exhibit good judgment around firearms. This belief creates a situation in which adolescents have easy access to a lethal means with which to kill themselves or to hurt others. Unfortunately, our study did not inquire about parents’ perceptions of their children being injured with a firearm in the home, limiting our ability to assess whether the perception of susceptibility is, in fact, the intervening variable between the age of the children in the home and storage practices.
Safe storage practices have the potential to reduce the risk of death by limiting access to the most lethal means of injury.5-8
In recent years, public health and medical professionals have worked to educate gun owners, and gun-owning parents in particular, about the importance of safe storage practices through face-to-face counseling, mass media campaigns, and legislation.29-37
Anticipatory guidance by pediatricians has been a leading strategy for promoting safe firearm storage.30,33,34,38,39
Although important, most of these promotional efforts focus on preventing unintentional injury (rather than suicide) and may have the greatest influence on parents of children younger than 13 years. As an example, a billboard for 1 media campaign included a child-sized coffin and the slogan: “Buy a box for your gun, not for your kid.”37
In our attempts to keep young children safe, we may be leaving behind adolescents, who are significantly more at risk for gun injuries than younger children. In the future, it may be important for educational efforts to purposefully include messages that are directly targeted to parents of adolescents. A specific recommendation for reaching parents of adolescents is more firearm safety education outside of pediatric clinics because many adolescents do not visit pediatricians or their parents do not accompany them to the physicians’ offices.