Since COVID-19 first began spreading in the U.S., gun sales have reportedly risen 43%. It’s estimated that 5.9 million more guns were sold from March through May alone than in years past, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) records on the number of background checks being performed to approve those sales. Federal background checks for gun purchases hit 3.64 million in July, which is the third-highest month of sales since the FBI began tracking background checks in 1998.
The American College of Surgeons (ACS) reports that “38,000 people die and more than 80,000 people are injured every year in the U.S. from guns,” noting that two of the main risk factors for experiencing a firearm-related injury are owning a gun and living in a house where guns are kept. That’s why, after this recent spike in sales, trauma and injury prevention experts worry some of those customers are first-time gun owners who may not know everything they need to about safely storing their purchase.
The gold standard for storage
Robert Letton, Jr., MD, is a board-certified pediatric surgeon and surgeon-in-chief at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, the Albert H. Wilkinson, Jr., MD, Endowed Professor in Pediatric Surgery, and chair of the Department of Surgery at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care. Not only has he treated gunshot injuries in his years of experience, but he’s a gun safety expert who has worked with the American College of Surgeons to create a gun safety toolkit for parents.
He said there is a gold standard for how to safely store firearms that he recommends for families with children in the home.
“We preach that the safest way to store a gun is unloaded, in some sort of locking box, with the ammunition somewhere else in another locked box,” Dr. Letton explained. “There are studies that show that probably 50% of children in the country live in a home where there’s a firearm. Of those, only about 1/4 of those homes have guns stored in the safest fashion, and at least 1/4 store guns that are completely loaded and unlocked. Access is an issue, so clearly this is the best way to store firearms.”
Alternative safety options
However, not all parents opt for that storage method. For parents who purchase a firearm for home defense, the idea of having it in a locked box, and ammunition in another, spread around the house defeats the purpose. When making safety recommendations for these gun owners, Dr. Letton tries to find a compromise that still keeps any kids in the household safe from accidental injuries.
“The compromise for people who have bought the gun for self-defense is a biometric lock box. Although not as safe as the ACS-recommended storage method, it’s at least safer than keeping a gun under the mattress or in a drawer,” he said.
A risk at any age
Dr. Letton adds that parents need to recognize that any gun is dangerous, and potentially fatal, in the hands of a child.
“What is usually discussed in the news are high-capacity magazines and semi-automatic weapons. In reality, those account for a miniscule percent of injuries. People have forgotten that handguns are still lethal weapons, and we’ve seen injuries where a five- or six-year-old shoots a two- or three-year-old with a gun from Mom’s purse. Or, finds it under the bed and thinks it’s a toy gun.”
While firearm injuries in young children tend to be accidental, Dr. Letton warns that parents of teens also need to practice safe gun storage to protect their kids.
“At age 14, the suicide rate just exponentially goes up, and it’s usually with firearms left unlocked laying around,” he said. “I’ve had too many conversations with a teenager’s parents wishing they could turn the clock back a day and lock that gun up.”
No matter the age of the children in your home, it’s vital to protect them from firearm injury. Dr. Letton encourages all gun owners to store their weapons responsibly.
“It’s reasonable to expect that if you’re going to own a firearm you should own it responsibly, and if you’re going to own it responsibly, that means storing it responsibly so that others can’t get access to it and do harm to themselves or others, whether intentional or unintentional. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit with respect to storage. We can’t make the risk zero, but we can certainly make it better.”
Prevention is vital when it comes to firearm injuries, and expertise in treating them is just as key should they occur. Wolfson Children’s Hospital is home to the only state-designated Pediatric Trauma Center in the area. To learn more about pediatric emergencies and trauma care, visit wolfsonchildrens.com/emergency.