A new study asks whether parents of children with an increased risk of self-harm take more care when storing their guns. The results, perhaps, are surprising.

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Do parents of at-risk children store their guns more safely?

Guns, gun rights, gun storage, gun advocacy, gun usage, gun safety — these terms have ebbed and flowed through the collective consciousness of the United States for centuries.

Today, this undulating tide is at a record high.

A paper that was recently published in the journal Pediatrics explores a specific eddy within the stream of gun safety.

It asks if firearms are stored more safely in the homes of children with an increased risk of self-harm.

In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released some guidelines that aimed to reduce firearm injury to children. They suggest that the safest home for a child is one without a firearm.

However, if the home does house a firearm, the risk of injury can also be reduced significantly by keeping them locked away, unloaded, and separate from the ammunition.

Gun storage and suicide

In 2015, suicide was the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 10–17. In the 10–14 age bracket, suicide rates tripled between 1999 and 2014.

More than 40 percent of youth suicides involve a firearm. In total, around 1,000 children aged 10–19 are killed by suicide involving a firearm in the U.S. each year.

Importantly, most of the firearms used in this way are sourced from the home of the child, or that of a friend or relative. Studies have also shown that children living in homes with guns have a higher risk of suicide (as well as unintentional firearm death).

A paper that was published in JAMA concludes that "keeping a gun locked, unloaded, storing ammunition locked, and in a separate location are each associated with a protective effect."

Researchers from Bouvé College of Health Sciences in Boston, MA, set out to see whether these studies and statistics have translated into changes in gun storage.

They asked two specific questions: firstly, whether parents of children with increased self-harm risk are any more or less likely to have guns at home; and secondly, whether parents with firearms store them more or less safely if one of their children has a history of self-harm risk factors.

To answer these queries, they dipped into a nationally representative database of questionnaires, completed by almost 4,000 U.S. adults.

Insight gleaned from questionnaire

The questionnaires asked whether the respondents owned a gun, how many guns, what types, and how they are stored at home. They also gathered information about the number of children they had and their ages.

Importantly, the questionnaires asked whether any of the children had depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or mental health disorders other than depression. All of the above are established risk factors for self-harm.

According to the questionnaires, overall, around 1 in 3 U.S. households contained firearms, and approximately 2 in 5 households where children were present contained a firearm.

They found that parents whose household contained a child with higher self-harm risk were slightly more likely to keep firearms unloaded and locked, but this difference was small and not statistically significant. The authors write:

"Based on our findings, it appears that having a child with self-harm risk factors does not, on average (1) factor into parents' decision to have firearms in their homes, or (2) materially affect whether parents store all household guns in accordance with AAP recommendations (locked and unloaded)."

Although the study authors note some shortfalls in the study design — such as a relatively small population size — they conclude that their findings suggest that "too many children [...] live in homes in which firearms are stored in less than an ideal fashion."

'Millions of children' at risk

A sobering insight is laid out in the paper's final paragraphs. "[O]ur findings suggest that millions of U.S. children are placed at substantially higher risk of fatal firearm injury, especially suicide, than would be the case were parents to follow guidelines first put forward by the AAP more than a quarter-century ago."

The paper is accompanied by a commentary written by David C. Grossman, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Washington. He rounds it off with the following words: "The increased rate of youth firearm suicide over 2 decades indicates failure of both healthcare and public health systems to adequately address prevention of these tragic injuries and deaths."

"The article by Scott et al," he continues, "tells us that we have much more to learn about how to successfully engage families in reducing access to guns in the home."

It is unlikely that this direction of research will be left unfollowed. It is similarly unlikely that the conclusions will not gather controversy from some corners.