Kids and guns

April 29, 2004

WE GRIEVE for Miles Patrick Smith Jr., the 4-year-old from Randallstown who shot himself in the head with a handgun he found inside a duffel bag on the living room sofa three days ago. Our sympathies go out to his family and friends. It is a terrible thing to lose a child. The fact that such a tragedy might have been averted can only add to their grief.

If there is purpose to be found in so awful a death, perhaps it is to serve as a wake-up call: The presence of a firearm in the home poses an extraordinary risk to children. Too many parents fail to understand this danger. And even those who take some precautions often haven't done enough.

An estimated 43 percent of U.S. households with children ages 3 to 17 keep at least one gun in the home. Surveys show that almost half of those guns are left unlocked or loaded. Anyone who has children knows that hiding places can be found out, keys can be swiped, curiosity can get the best of any child no matter how well drilled on gun safety by parents.

How many children and adolescents die as the result of unintentional firearm-related injuries? The figures are disputed, but it's estimated to be about 300 each year. That's 10 times the number of children who die each year from accidentally ingesting medicines or household chemicals. But that's just the beginning - hundreds of adults die from firearm accidents each year, too.

It's not just accidents, either. A gun in the home can facilitate a suicide that might not have happened otherwise. Two-thirds of all teen suicides are committed with a gun. Researchers estimate that a gun in the home is 11 times more likely to be used in a suicide than to injure or kill an intruder. It's four times as likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting.

Most people have a right to own a gun, but it's a privilege that comes with a huge responsibility, and clearly there are too many people who aren't living up to that obligation. In Maryland, it's against the law to keep a loaded gun in a place that is accessible to a youngster. But the law is virtually unenforceable - rarely can police ever witness a violation.

It's one of the reasons that Maryland's 4-year-old law requiring internal trigger locks in handguns is such a good idea. They are like having child-proof caps on medicine bottles, a last line of defense against misuse.

At a child's checkup, pediatricians now regularly ask: Is there a gun in the home? The public health threat posed by guns demands it. Parents need to ask others the same question before allowing a child to play at the home of a neighbor, a relative or friend. According to experts, six out of 10 parents don't ask that question. In a society with so many guns, it's time we all started.

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