This is the key question so many of us involved in the gun debate face. On a personal level, answering it has big implications for our families’ safety. As Amy discussed in a recent post, having a gun in the household increases the chances that someone in the household will die by gunshot, though even in households with guns there are many things you can do to keep your kids safer.

US and Japanese Flags With GunBut what about across the country? At the national level, the question has big implications for our country’s laws. Many people carry concealed or unconcealed weapons in public places out of fear of crime. Some people argue (see, for instance, here) that laws that allow easy access to guns and that allow guns to be carried in public places in the United States help to keep crime rates down. A recent study in The American Journal of Medicine – one of our country’s most prestigious sources of cutting-edge research in medicine and public health – concludes that that the answer is decidedly “No.”

The authors of this study examine rates of firearm ownership in 27 developed countries: from culturally relatively similar ones like Australia and New Zealand, to culturally quite different ones such as Japan. They also consider rates of major depressive disorder in those countries. Then they ask how firearm ownership and mental health problems in each country are related to the crime rate and the number of firearm deaths per person.

What they find is striking: the more guns in a country, the higher its rate of firearm deaths. The relationship is very strong, and holds up even when you don’t consider the countries at the extremes, such as the United States (high gun ownership, high firearm death rate) and Japan (low gun ownership, low firearm death rate). No matter how you slice the data, the more guns a country has, the more likely the average citizen is to die by gunshot. By contrast, there is a small, statistically significant relationship between mental illness and rates of gun deaths, but the association is very weak.

But some people might say that even if more guns means more gun deaths, criminals will be less likely to strike in countries where they fear that their potential victims could have a concealed weapon. In other words, maybe crime rates go down at the same time that would-be criminals are more likely to get killed. Unfortunately, once again the authors find that the answer is “No.” They find that there is no relationship between the number of guns per person in a country and the country’s crime rate. The U.S. happens to have a lot of guns and, in recent years, pretty low crime rates. But Japan has very few guns and even lower crime rates. And the UK and Israel have fewer guns than the U.S., but more crime.

Surely there must be some cases in which the presence of guns helps to prevent a crime, or in which potential victims kill would-be attackers. Still, this study has a very clear conclusion: on average and across the developed world, having more guns does NOT make countries safer.

By Amy, mom to A (1 year 3 months) and O (3 years 9 months)

Over the Labor Day weekend, I stopped my one-year-old from pulling all the books off the bottom two shelves of the living room bookcase three times. He managed to chew up two twigs and a walnut that had fallen off the tree in our yard, and he ingested unknown quantities of dirt. In a split second in which I turned my attention elsewhere, my three-year-old pushed his little brother down the stairs.

Boy and Girl Running in Tall Grass

Luckily, everyone’s okay, and I think we’ll safely avoid a visit from Child Protective Services. We have carpeted stairs, the books are easily replaced, and the baby won’t die from any bugs he might possibly have ingested with the dirt.

In recent months Americans have been shocked by a number of incidents involving young children and guns – incidents that didn’t end nearly as happily as my children’s little mishaps over Labor Day. In Kentucky in early May, a five-year-old boy shot and killed his two-year-old sister. A couple of months later in the same state, a four-year-old boy shot and killed his six-year-old sister. And in New Orleans in July, a five-year-old girl killed herself with a weapon she found in a bedroom. Last month, a California SWAT officer was shot in the thigh at a children’s reading event when an eight-year-old boy somehow managed to pull the trigger on the officer’s holstered gun. Just this Saturday, an 11-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her stepfather while he was showing off his new gun.

Anyone with a young child knows that the moment the kid starts really walking, all bets are off – kids are little and squirrely and can get into trouble in the blink of an eye. You’re stirring a pot of oatmeal and turn away from the stove to answer the phone. Your husband interrupts you, and for a split second you forget that you were about to tell your child to climb off that table, NOW! When you have several young children, or you need to get other things done around the house, or – God forbid – you are sleep deprived and sick, it all gets that much harder. It’s easy to second-guess the parents whose children fired the guns. In hindsight, maybe a parent shouldn’t have stepped into the backyard for a second. Maybe the eight-year-old California boy’s mom or dad shouldn’t have let him get that close to the officer’s gun. As a parent of two young boys, though, I tend to think this is asking parents to be superhuman. The only thing that’s kept my kids from shooting themselves or someone else is that there’s no gun around.

Even ammunition by itself can be dangerous. Young children may think bullets, like walnuts and twigs, look interesting to put in their mouths. Kids have died trying to tamper with bullets, or bang them on rocks, or hit them with hammer and nail.

It would be nice to think that gun safety would get easier once the kids get a little older and better at following directions. The Eddie Eagle rules are targeted at kids pre-K to third grade. They’re simple, clear, and easy to memorize: “If you see a gun, 1.STOP! 2. Don’t Touch. 3. Leave the Area. 4. Call an Adult.” The rules are great, one of the things for which the NRA should really be commended. The trick is to get your kids to follow the rules when you’re not around. Research shows that just telling kids the rules isn’t enough (also see here). You need to reinforce the message frequently, using active-learning and role-playing. It’s best if you practice the skills in the same kind of place where your child will encounter the gun.

Unfortunately, a study has found that even pre-teen boys whose parents talk with them about gun safety – and even ones whose parents think they’re not at all interested in guns – can’t really be trusted alone in a room with a gun. In a study that should send shivers down the spines of parents everywhere, medical researchers observed pairs of boys waiting in a room for 15 minutes. In a drawer in that room, the researchers had planted a handgun with a sensor on the trigger. Of the 29 groups of boys they studied, 72% found the gun. Among the kids who found the gun, three-quarters of the groups picked it up and touched it, and in half of the groups one or both kids actually pulled the trigger. The kids’ behavior was totally unrelated to their parents’ perceptions of how interested their kids were in guns, or to whether the kids had had gun safety instruction.

So the pre-teen years are obviously a problem. Maybe by the time my boys are teenagers they’ll be better at self-control and following gun safety rules? Unfortunately, right at this point adolescent hormones spike. Surely my boys will understand the rules by this point. But this is exactly when peer pressure is worst. In fact, peer influence is, I would guess, a big part of the reason the pre-teen boys in the study I discussed above behaved in ways their parents didn’t expect, and in contradiction of the gun safety rules they’d been taught.

Adolescent depression might be even worse than peer influence. Having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a teenager committing suicide – if firearms are removed from the home, some youth will commit suicide by other means, but many won’t. Studies of suicide attempts show that suicide is, despite its finality, usually impulsive. Tragically, however, impulsive suicide attempt are likely to be deadly when the weapon is a gun – between 78 and 90% of gun suicide attempts are fatal.

Many parents strongly believe that having a gun in the home is the safest way to protect their kids from danger. Unfortunately, though, evidence suggests the opposite – kids who live in homes with guns are actually more likely to die by gunshot than are kids living in homes without guns. As a result of this evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong position on guns and kids: “The safest home for children and teens is one without guns. If there are guns in the home, scientific evidence shows the risk of injury or death is greatly reduced when they are stored unloaded and locked, with the ammunition locked in a separate place.”

So how can we keep our kids safe from themselves when it comes to guns? In a world where guns are plentiful it may be almost impossible to completely protect our children. Still, here are some general guidelines that I’ve picked up.

  1. Follow the advice of this country’s flagship association of pediatricians. If possible, taking into account your family’s lifestyle and needs, keep guns out of the house entirely. If that’s not possible, follow their advice and keep your gun(s) stored unloaded and locked. Keep the ammunition in a different place, also locked up.
  2. To the extent possible, try to keep guns out of your child’s environment when he or she is away from home. If your child is at a home daycare center, ask the provider if she has a gun in her house. If your child goes over to a friend’s house on a play date, ask if the friend’s parents have a gun in the home. At your child’s public school, talk with the PTA about devising a plan to keep children from bringing guns into the school.
  3. You need to exercise special caution if you have a teen in the house who develops symptoms of depression. Teens are watchful and resourceful and they often know much more about how to get access to supposedly secured weapons than their parents realize. Even if the teen is well trained with firearms, intelligent and responsible, the best idea is to get the guns out of the house altogether – sell them or ask a responsible relative to store them (locked up) in another house to which your depressed teen doesn’t have access.
  4. Build in redundancies. Well-meaning, caring adults sometimes forget and, despite the best intentions (as well as penalties for negligence in a few states), they leave weapons in places where children can find them. As your child gets older, he or she will spend less time with you and in places you can monitor. You need to think about what your child will do if or when he or she encounters a gun.

- Drill the Eddie Eagle rules: “If you see a gun, 1.STOP! 2. Don’t Touch. 3. Leave the Area. 4. Call an Adult.” Talk about them. Repeat them regularly. Make sure your children understand them. Check for comprehension. Practice them by role-playing scenarios in which you find a gun.

- Always assume that any gun around is loaded, and treat it accordingly. Even if you yourself emptied the chambers, still assume it’s loaded. Mistakes happen, and people are human – tired, forgetful, rushed. Almost daily, we hear stories of accidents, often tragic ones, explained by someone who says, “I didn’t know it was loaded.” This rule should mostly apply to grown-ups, since kids should NOT be touching guns without adults around. Still, if there are guns in your household, it’s an important rule for EVERYONE to keep in mind.

- Some people recommend teaching your child to shoot. They argue that doing so will help your child learn to handle a gun safely, and will make her less curious about touching a gun if she encounters one. This might be logical, but I can’t find any research that shows whether such a strategy is effective. One study, however, did find that kids with guns in their homes were more likely to touch a gun in a risky, unsupervised situation. Gun researchers all endorse the Eddie Eagle rules as the single most important way to keep your kids safe around a gun. If you do teach your child to shoot, make sure you emphasize guidelines for gun safety – and most importantly, that you still rehearse the Eddie Eagle rules regularly. 

The policy proposals that President Obama announced on Wednesday (organized by category here) outlined a wide-ranging agenda, including twenty-three items that could be implemented through executive action and twelve recommendations for action from Congress.* The items are a mixed bag, ranging from immediately actionable ideas to proposals that may never make it through Congress. Some are vague (launching a national dialogue about mental illness) while others are very specific (confirming a director for the ATF).  In the coming weeks, PAGV will explore, seek input on, and respond in detail to the specific items. Here we outline a few of our immediate reactions as parents and concerned citizens.

  1. This is an important first step. It is gratifying to see the President both take direct action on a number of important gun-related matters, and publicly initiate the conversation about what needs to change to address the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in the United States.
  2. We strongly agree with the need for a comprehensive legislative and executive agenda, one that attempts to solve gun violence by addressing gun access, gun safety, school safety, societal factors, and mental illness.  Reducing the threat of violence to our children will clearly require such a broad-based, comprehensive effort. Any flaws in individual proposals do not invalidate the entire effort.
  3. There will be something for everyone to like, and for everyone to hate, in the proposals.  Given the current political climate, this may be inevitable.  Due to the absence of thorough research into the causes and effects of gun violence, there is little agreement about its remedies, beyond a desire to see it end.  To some, allocating $10,000,000 to research the connection between video games and violence seems like the worst kind of pandering to the NRA’s “it’s-everything-but-the-guns” narrative. To others, requiring background checks on all gun sales seems like the first step in a government takeover.
  4. Some of the proposals concur in fundamental ways with recent policy proposals from Parents Against Gun Violence. One of the executive orders, for example, directed the Centers for Disease Control to initiate research into the health effects of gun access (PAGV Policy Plank #2, Empower Researchers), while a proposal to Congress urges legislators to allocate $30,000,000 for schools to develop emergency-response plans (Policy Plank #5, Protect Schools).
  5. While President Obama implemented a number of executive actions, the biggest proposed changes will all require legislative action. All of the major funding allocations (with the exception of $20 million to encourage states to share background data) also have to go through Congress. In the coming weeks, concerned parents and citizens need to make sure that our voices and perspectives are heard in the legislative debates.

* Note that Obama actually signed only three executive orders (technically “presidential memorandums“) on Wednesday.  The 23 “executive actions” named in the Obama proposal describe general policy priorities that would not require Congressional approval for implementation. However, many of the proposed “executive actions” come far from implemented (or implementable) public policy at this point.

logo2Parents Against Gun Violence was founded by a nationwide coalition of mothers and fathers hours after the Newtown, CT killings.  In the weeks that followed, our members were busy collecting and studying scientific, peer-reviewed research on the causes of gun violence and gun accidents, and strategizing about how to reduce both.

At the same time, we have engaged in intensive dialogue with concerned citizens from across the political spectrum.  Through this process of research and dialogue, we have developed a set of five policy planks that we believe can gain support across the political spectrum, and that provide a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence. We encourage all concerned citizens to contact their representatives, senators and any other elected officials as well to advocate for these policy proposals. If you would like to sign the petition promoting this platform, click on the Change.org petition here.

As parents, we urge lawmakers and the President to consider the following:

Policy Plank 1.) Empower law enforcement

a.) Approve Andrew Traver, President Obama’s nominee for Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.  Without a leader, the Bureau is hampered in its ability to enforce its congressionally mandated responsibilities, such as investigating and prosecuting straw purchasers who buy guns for criminals. More »

hugsnotguns5AOn January 19, gun advocacy groups want us to “appreciate guns” with their Gun Appreciation Day. But we would rather appreciate children on that day, declared a National Service Day. Instead of appreciating guns, here are five things you can do to show your appreciation for the children who will grow up to be our future.

1. Devote your Day of Service to a children’s charity or organization.

2. Teach a child a new skill–or ask them to teach you something!

3. Upload a photo of you hugging your child on our Facebook page.

4. Familiarize yourself with what the American Academy of Pediatrics says about firearm safety and children.

5. If you do have a gun at home, take this opportunity to double check that it is stored safely and cannot be accessed by anyone but a responsible adult.

You can also download our Child Appreciation Day press release.

Want to help spread the word? Check out our page on Child Appreciation Day to share memes on Facebook!

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, several medical organizations have spoken up about either gun violence itself, firearm safety or about the response of other organizations, such as the NRA.

Since much of the nationwide dialogue after this tragedy has involved discussions on mental health, it makes sense that the American Psychiatric Association issued their remarks. Dilip Jeste, MD, president of the APA, sent a letter December 20 on behalf of the organization to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The letter, which you can download here, focused on two main points. First, as part of their responsibility to their profession, Dr. Jeste said “psychiatrists stand ready to do whatever we can to help alleviate the suffering caused by the tragedy and to help the survivors cope with life after a trauma of this unimaginable magnitude.”

But more importantly, Dr. Jeste followed that with a reminder that focusing too much on the mental condition of the shooter risks inappropriately increasing the stigma already associated with mental illness. “Stigma remains one of the greatest barriers to early identification, intervention, and treatment for Americans seeking help for mental illness, and we hope that Congress will avoid making generalized assumptions about persons now in or seeking treatment for mental illness,” Dr. Jeste wrote.

After noting that the “vast majority of violence” does not occur at the hands of individuals with mental disorders, Dr. Jeste said that those who do commit the crimes generally are not receiving adequate or appropriate mental health treatment. The statistics he notes are sobering: Public mental health spending has been reduced by $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012, and 29 states have gotten rid of over 3,200 psychiatric inpatient beds since 2008.

He also brought up an issue which had been in the medical news recently related to doctors’ ability to discuss firearm possession and safety with their patients: “We are also profoundly disturbed by recent efforts in some states to curb or bar the ability of physicians, including psychiatrists, to prudently and confidentially inquire about the presence of firearms in the home when the behavior of their patients warrants such an inquiry,” Dr. Jeste wrote.

An article published in JAMA Pediatrics (formerly Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine) provided the history of the Florida law that attempted to prevent doctors from speaking to their patients about firearms, concluding “Dialogue stemming from these questions will help families protect children from multiple forms of harm.”

A few days after sending that letter, the APA spoke up again to express their “disappointment” to the statement by the NRA and specifically the mental health stigmatization that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre promoted with his comments. The APA wrote in their news release (pdf):

“The association objected to LaPierre’s assumption that horrendous crimes such as the one committed by shooter Adam Lanza are commonly perpetrated by persons with mental illness. In addition, he conflated mental illness with evil at several points in his talk and suggested that those who commit heinous gun crimes are ‘so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them,’ a description that leads to the further stigmatization of people with mental illnesses.”

Noting that “only four to five percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness,” Dr. Jeste reminded the press that those with mental illnesses are rarely violent and are much more likely to be crime victims than crime perpetrators. Calling the use of the word “lunatic” by LaPierre “offensive,” Dr. Jeste said, “About one quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and only a very small percentage of them will ever commit violent crimes.”

The letter concludes with a statement from APA CEO James Scully, MD: “The idea that mental illness and evil are one and the same thing is simply a relic of the past and has no place in our public dialogue. People who are clearly not mentally ill commit violent crimes and perform terrible acts every day. Unfortunately, Mr. LaPierre’s statements serve only to increase the stigma around mental illness and further the misconception that those with mental disorders are likely to be dangerous.”