A gun in the home endangers family


September 27, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

Since 1988, when market surveys showed that gun sales to men had stagnated, the firearms industry has been doing its best to modify its image and turn more women into arms-bearing customers. Gun manufacturers have designed smaller, easier-to-operate guns, complete with accessories to "feminize" or hide the weapons, such as concealment holsters, handgun-sized leather purses and fanny packs.

With the media reporting ever-increasing amounts of gun-related violence, fear of crime is the major reason first-time women buyers cite for purchasing a gun. Sophisticated marketing approaches strategically positioned in major women's magazines and elsewhere play to this fear, attempting to tap maternal instincts and family protectionism and responsibility to increase sales.

But does having a gun in the home for personal protection really make women and their families any safer? For some answers, I turned to my colleague Stephen Teret, a professor in the department of health policy and management and former director of the Injury Prevention Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Q: Are women really safer with a gun in the house?

A: According to Mr. Teret, studies done by researchers across the country point to the same sobering conclusion: Far from providing increased security in the home, a gun represents a pronounced danger.

"It's highly dangerous to have a gun in the house," Mr. Teret said. "That simple statement is underlined by epidemiological studies."

Mr. Teret cited studies that starkly profile the threats home firearms pose. Researchers examining 420 homicides in three states determined that a gun in the home increased the risk of suicide 4.8 times, and more than doubled the risk of homicide.

Another study at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control revealed that if a gun is involved in domestic arguments and fights with family members or acquaintances, a death is 12 times more likely to occur than if a gun is not present.

Data from these and other studies consistently indicate that most gun deaths involve people who already know each other.

All the research points to the same conclusion: While having a gun may make women temporarily feel safer, the facts are that all members of the family are placed at greater risk. "What is especially troubling about selling guns to women, particularly young women who are single parents, is the likelihood that the gun will be in a house with children," Mr. Teret said. "That raises the issue of the most tragic of all kinds of gun death, the young child who finds a gun . . . and shoots himself or a sibling."

Q: Can guns be made safer?

A: No one is attempting to regulate the design of guns. Public-health advocates continue to push for safety devices that would "child proof" guns. Innovative research is being conducted on how a gun might be programmed, via an electronic chip, to operate only for its owner.

Q: What other methods of self-protection are available to women?

A: Some simple, common-sense yet effective methods exist that help safeguard women and their homes. A few examples:

* Secure your home with deadbolts and window locks; a burglar-alarm system monitored by your local police department or a nationally recognized firm also may be worth the expense.

* Park in well-lit areas, and try not to arrive home after dark alone. If you do arrive home after dark, have someone see you to your door if possible.

* Carry a purse-sized pepper spray. It is less injurious than Mace and equally effective.

* Keep a telephone by your bedside and pre-program the police emergency number.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is founding director of its Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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