Private guns, public health: The right to bear arms comes with responsiblities, too

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Gun ownership is a right in our country, yet we have severely shirked the responsibilities that go with it. Nationally, approximately 40 percent of households with children have guns, many stored loaded and unlocked. An unsecured gun in the home is 22 times more likely to injure and kill loved ones than to protect against an intruder.

Every year in the United States, about 4,000 children are accidentally killed or injured, and 3,400 young people commit or attempt suicide by gunshot, primarily with guns acquired from the homes of family or friends. When viewed as a public health issue, the best way to reduce firearm injuries and deaths among children is to prevent their access to guns.

The Centers for Disease Control does not track firearm injuries, but we can get a rudimentary idea of the numerous firearm accidents occurring on a daily basis around the country thanks to efforts such as Ohh Shoot, and by doing our own key word searches on Google. Even the families of highly trained police officers are not immune to firearm mishaps, as we have seen several times now in Western Pennsylvania when children have used an officer's weapon to shoot themselves or others.

Research shows that gun safety training classes for young children are wholly ineffective. The television show "20/20" has documented this quite powerfully in video demonstrations available for viewing on YouTube.

In its 2012 report, the Pennsylvania Statewide Child Death Review team recommended that Pennsylvania adopt a child access prevention law, which would require gun owners to lock up their weapons if children might be able to access them. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have enacted such laws in various forms, and one study found that in 12 states where such laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23 percent from 1990 to 1994 among children under 15 years of age.

What can we do?

The Falk Foundation is focusing our philanthropy on educating parents about the dangers of unlocked guns in the home and promoting responsible gun ownership.

At the individual level, parents and caregivers can ask, "Is there a gun in the home where my child plays, and how is it being stored?" as a matter of responsible parenting.

We can follow the lead of the Pennsylvania regulations governing home-based day-care centers requiring that gun owners lock their firearms unloaded in gun safes, with ammunition locked away separately. (Childcare operators also are required to inform their clients if there is a gun on the premises.)

Gun violence affects us all -- rural, suburban, urban. In 14 rural Pennsylvania counties, for example, the suicide rate by firearm is higher than the homicide rate in Allegheny County.

We are better than this. Every gun in the hands of a child must first pass through the hands of an adult. Gun ownership has long been a right; let us demand the responsibility that goes with it.

opinion_commentary

Kerry O'Donnell is president of the Pittsburgh-based Falk Foundation, whose mission is to promote a just and inclusive society (falkfund.org).


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