Parents see guns as major childhood health hazard Perception of threat to youth fosters demand for weapons curbs, poll finds

June 04, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

Guns have become such a hazard to children in America that one in five parents says he or she knows someone whose child has been shot by another child, according to a national poll by Louis Harris released yesterday.

And a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- favors "a federal law banning the ownership of all handguns" except those used with permission of a court, the survey said.

"Guns are now perceived as a major health problem for children," Mr. Harris said in releasing the survey of 1,250 adults taken in April. The poll, prepared for the Harvard School of Public Health, was paid for by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Most parents believe that schools and streets have become more dangerous for children, according to the survey, and say that children have learned to act tougher to protect themselves.

The poll found that the number of households reporting ownership of a gun has dropped to 42 percent, from 45 percent in 1989.

But despite that drop, the poll found:

* One in six parents knows a child who was found playing with a loaded gun.

* One in five parents knows a child who "was so worried that he or she got a gun for self-protection."

* Only one in four parents -- about 25 percent -- feels that "most zTC children in America live in safe neighborhoods," down from 36 percent in 1986.

According to the poll, the public's concern about gun violence affects political attitudes, with adults surveyed supporting such restrictions as a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases, a federal law requiring all handguns to be registered with the federal government and a law banning taking handguns across state lines.

Deborah Leff, the president of the Joyce Foundation, said the group paid for the survey to provide data to refocus the gun issue as a public-health concern and not just a crime issue. "Medical people have perceived it as a problem," Ms. Leff said. "It's not clear if the public perceived the extent of the emergency."

In Baltimore, where fear of violence is an undercurrent to everyday life, the impact of guns is obvious. Homicides last year set a record, and murders in 1993 so far are ahead of last year's pace. Reports of children caught in cross-fire or hit in drive-by shootings are not unusual.

No surprise to doctors

Against that backdrop, doctors who work with children in Baltimore hospitals said that the numbers found in the Harris survey were no surprise to them.

A 1991 study by Dr. Jack Gladstein, director of inpatient pediatrics at University Hospital, found that 67 percent of Baltimore adolescents surveyed knew someone who had been shot.

At the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. David Nichols, director of pediatric intensive care, said that even the young patients "understand that they are living in an environment in which they could be killed. You have to ask yourself: How can you get up and go to school or go out to play with your friends when you believe that?"

The children, he said, "develop very intense coping mechanisms." They learn, he said, to find the safest routes to school. They duck when they hear gunfire.

"This is an environment where weapons are proliferating and children are shot," Dr. Nichols said.

Ms. Leff, at the Joyce Foundation, said that the Harvard School of Public Health and other groups can use the poll's findings to develop strategies for reducing gun violence. Attacking the problem only through the criminal justice system, she said, is not enough.

"You cannot just respond with punishment," she said. "People have to figure out how to prevent gun violence."

Harvard researchers are working on ways to identify issues that provoke violence, to teach children how to settle disputes without resorting to violence and to find ways to prevent injuries caused by guns.

The Harris poll's findings that people favor gun restrictions delighted Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, which wants the state legislature to pass a comprehensive gun-control law next year. He said the poll will help support his group's cause in Annapolis.

Findings disputed

"These results confirm the sense we get in talking to people around the state," Mr. DeMarco said. "The people of Maryland demand gun control."

But Bob McMurray, vice president of the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, disagreed.

"Completely and totally false," he said. "It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. It's Handgun Control Inc., pre-canned, instant spin."

In Washington, Bill McIntyre of the National Rifle Association disputed the poll's findings, saying that the wording of the questions led respondents to give desired answers.

And though the poll reports that National Rifle Association membership has fallen to 7 percent today from 14 percent in 1987, Mr. McIntyre said that national NRA membership is up 800,000 in the past 18 months to a new high of 3.1 million.

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