Diane Dimond: Guns plus kids equals potential tragedy

Diane Dimond

Summertime is upon us, the season when out-of-school kids are frequently left alone in the house. Here’s a question for all parents and grandparents out there: Do you have guns in your home?

According to a new report from the Children’s National Hospital, 20,000 American children — yes, 20,000 — will be rushed to the emergency room this year with a gunshot wound. In 2015, more than 4,500 youngsters under age 21 died by firearm. Many were injured or killed as a result of in-home accidents (more common among younger children), but suicides and homicides were also listed as causes of death, primarily in older youths.

The authors of the study call it “a pediatric public health crisis.”

The study also found that more than 44 percent of American homes have at least one gun, and that many parents (39 percent) are in a state of denial thinking their children don’t know where the weapon is kept. But kids often know the hiding place; in fact, 22 percent of parents wrongly think their kids have never handled the gun in their home.

This is not to condemn gun owners reading this. You’ve got a constitutional right to own a gun — or multiple guns. No judgments here, but, as a parent, those were pretty eye-opening statistics.

ABC’s “20/20” program ran an upsetting special on kids and guns a few years ago. They put a group of children ages 4 to 10 in a playroom — with the parents’ permission — where an unloaded handgun was strategically placed. All the children got a talk from a policeman and were shown a popular National Rife Association kids video that teaches them to never touch a gun — ever — and instead to back away, leave the area and find an adult. When left alone in the playroom, guess what happened. Only one girl out of 14 disobeyed, but more than half the boys touched the gun; some also picked it up, pointed it at other children, pulled the trigger and, most chillingly, looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger.

The program featured Dr. Marjorie Sanfilippo, an expert in pediatric psychology and gun safety. Her words stayed with me.

We can sit kids down and ask them to repeat the instructions, she said, “but you can’t educate curiosity out of a child.” Kids often play cops-and-robbers-type games and pretend to fall dead, Sanfilippo said, and at that age they don’t understand what death really means.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports free trigger safety locks as the best way to curb childhood injuries and death. It urges pediatricians to counsel families not to have a false sense of security about the gun in their home, especially if their child has a mood disorder or abuses substances. AAP also wants its member doctors to encourage parents to ask about whether guns are present in the homes where their children go to visit.

Gun experts believe firearm safety education is the key, along with safe storage of weapons in a sturdy lockbox or gun safe. It was reported in 2015 that there are now more civilian-owned guns in the United States than there are people, and we are a nation of 325 million. So, teaching gun safety seems like a logical thing to stress.

I’ve always wondered what happened to the 9-year-old girl whose parents took her to an Arizona gun range for a lesson on how to shoot an Uzi. I’m sure they figured this family outing to teach their child gun safety was a responsible thing to do. But in the end, she was not able to control the gun’s recoil, and she accidently shot her instructor in the head and killed him.

Gun aficionados later agreed on two points: Children should not handle a submachine gun; they should learn on a single-shot handgun first. And the instructor (a military veteran) was standing in the wrong place as he assisted the girl.

When you consider that 16 kids are hospitalized with gunshot injuries every single day in this country, it’s clear something needs fixing. And it’s got to be more than just telling your child to never touch a gun.

I cannot erase that “20/20” experiment from my mind. Those little kids just couldn’t keep their hands off the forbidden object. It is easy to understand how an accidental shooting could happen.

This summer, let’s all resolve to have the safety talk with the children in our lives and order those gun locks you’ve been meaning to get. And don’t be afraid to ask the parents of children’s playmates whether they have guns in the house. We can’t get rid of millions of guns, but we can try better to protect our kids.

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