Health & Science

How to protect kids from guns, the leading cause of child death

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Car accidents were the leading cause of death among children for decades—but new research in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that firearms became the number one cause of child deaths in 2020. Gun-related fatalities jumped much more sharply among children, at a nearly 30 percent increase from 2019, while firearm-related deaths overall increased only 13.5 percent. 

In addition to jeopardizing their physical safety, exposure to gun violence is also harmful to kids’ mental wellbeing. According to gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety, 3 million children witness gun violence every year.

What’s behind the increase in gun violence?

While it may seem obvious to point to mass shootings as the primary reason for the increase in childhood gun fatalities given their drastic increase in recent decades, the vast majority of firearm-related deaths occur in smaller household or community incidents. 

One reason that gun fatalities have overtaken automobiles as the leading cause of death among children is the rapid advancement in auto safety during the last few decades, while gun safety improvements have largely stayed stagnant. 

Experts also point to the surge in gun ownership in recent years, along with the lack of vital safety measures among gun owners with children at home. A 2020 survey revealed that 40 percent of gun owners do not lock their guns, even when there are children present in the home.

Aisha King, a researcher who conducted the survey, attributes this in part to misinformation. Many parents of young children don’t believe their kids know how to find or access their guns. “A lot of times, the kids do know,” said King. “Guardians might think that training adolescents or older children is enough to keep them safe, that training means they don’t have to lock their guns. Unfortunately, a lot of adolescents are at high risk of suicide, and unlocked guns add to that risk – regardless of training.” 

Protecting kids at home

Ultimately, the best way to prevent gun-related fatalities among children is to keep a gun-free household. Kids are naturally curious and defiant, and children as young as 2 can be strong enough to pull a trigger. 

If you do decide to keep a gun in the home, it’s important to keep in mind that simply hiding it out of sight is not enough to prevent possible injury and death. Here are some tips for gun safety in the home:

  • While not in use, every gun in the home should be unloaded and locked in a lockbox or safe. 
  • Guns should have child safety locks engaged when not in use.
  • Access codes or combinations to a gun safe should be kept in the gun owner’s mind ideally, or in a private place that only the gun owner can access.
  • When a gun is not being stored, keep it in your immediate possession and control at all times.
  • Unload a gun before you put it down.
  • If a loved one in the home is in crisis involving mental health and/or substance abuse issues, and you believe they may be a risk to themselves or others, consider temporarily removing any guns from the home.
  • Before removing a gun from the home, learn how to dispose of it in a safe way in your community. Consult with local law enforcement or gun safety groups on the best way to do so.
  • If your child is going into another home where there may be guns present, talk with the homeowners about their gun safety protocols. This guide for parents can help you navigate the conversation.

Talking to your child about guns

Having frequent, age-appropriate conversations with your family about gun safety can also help reduce the risk of gun-related injuries and fatalities. It’s also important to model the attitudes about guns you’d like to see in your children, so don’t make light of gun violence or make jokes about guns in front of your children. Here are some specific things you can say to your kids to increase their awareness of gun risks:

  • “If you see a gun, never ever touch it. Leave it alone and tell an adult you trust right away.”
  • “Guns are tools, not toys. Just like you wouldn’t touch a power saw or a blowtorch, you should never touch a gun.”
  • “A gun in a video game or a movie is not the same as a gun in real life. In reality, a gun can really hurt people.”
  • “Never point a gun at anything you wouldn’t want to destroy, even if it’s not loaded.”

For older kids, it can also be so impactful to learn together as a family about the repercussions of gun violence on people and communities. Keeping communication open with your kids and teaching them the basics of gun safety will go a long way to prevent gun-related injuries and fatalities, regardless of whether you have a gun in your own home. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.