Constable: How homes with guns can reduce the risks

In our imperfect world, it's impossible to protect every person from every lurking danger. So we focus on risk reduction.

People get killed in car crashes, but we can reduce those risks by putting children in car seats, wearing seat belts, following traffic signals, avoiding speeding, and not driving while impaired. People die of heart disease and cancer, but we can reduce those risks by eating healthy, exercising and not smoking. People die of COVID-19, but we can reduce those risks by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and avoiding crowds.

When it comes to gun violence, we can reduce those risks, too, says a recent Voices of Child Health in Chicago survey administered by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

“Having a gun in the house is dangerous,” says Dr. Karen Sheehan, associate chair for advocacy in pediatrics at Lurie Children's Hospital and medical director of the Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities. The survey found 22% of homes in Chicago have guns, with higher gun-ownership rates in more affluent communities, and that 46% of those guns are stored loaded, which increases risks.

“The reality is that having firearms in the home increases the risk of unintentional shootings, suicide, and homicide,” concludes an accompanying report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, based in Itasca. Having guns increases the likelihood of an accidental shooting death by 400%.

“The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't helped, either,” that report says. “From March to December 2020, unintended shooting deaths by kids went up more than 30% compared to the same time period in 2019.”

People who have guns in their homes can reduce those risks by storing the weapons unloaded and locked inside a gun safe, locking away the ammunition separately, asking if the homes your children visit have unlocked guns, teaching children who see a gun to immediately leave the area without touching the weapon and to tell an adult, working with agencies that address violence prevention, and supporting legislation proven to decrease gun violence, the study concludes.

While the study focused on neighborhoods in Chicago, gun violence, the same as COVID-19, doesn't adhere to boundaries. “There have been several unintentional shootings in the suburbs recently,” Sheehan says.

In the past few months, the Daily Herald has had stories about a 20-year-old Gurnee man sentenced to four years in prison after he fatally shot his girlfriend with a gun he thought was unloaded and an Aurora man who mishandled his 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and shot his girlfriend, who survived. There have been 14 accidental shootings in Illinois since July 4, according to the Gun Violence Archive in Washington, D.C., including the Aug. 5 case of a 4-year-old girl in Chicago who was shot dead by another child.

“Many studies have shown that kids can find things in the house that they're not supposed to know about,” Sheehan says. In 2020, there were at least 369 unintended shootings by children in the United States, resulting in 142 deaths and 242 injuries.

People who keep loaded guns out of fear they'll need them quickly aren't that different from people who shun seat belts out of fear that they could be trapped by a device designed to save lives.

“Some people say, ‘I have a gun to protect my family,'” Sheehan says. “We know, in Chicago, 80% of gun violence is on the street. It's not people going into your house.”

Mental health crises make guns more dangerous.

”The problem is, we don't always know they're depressed,” Sheehan says. Children and teens can be impulsive and might give no clues before using guns to end their lives.

People are “getting guns to protect their homes, but we want the children inside to be safe,” says Sheehan, who has been working on ways to reduce gun violence since the early 1990s, when medical experts began thinking about guns as a public health issue.

Keeping unloaded guns in locked safes also helps prevent guns from being stolen and used in other crimes.

“A lot of people bought guns during COVID,” Sheehan says, adding that new gun owners might not have thought about the dangers. “Maybe this will get the wheels turning in their heads.”

Homes without guns are safest, but even homes with guns can take precautions to reduce the risks, says Dr. Karen Sheehan of Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. Courtesy of Lurie Children's Hospital
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