People in Vermont, a liberal state with a rich hunting culture, often hold strong opinions about guns, which can make it difficult to discuss firearm safety in dispassionate and non-politicized terms.
But the risks of avoiding such conversations can be lethal. Every two hours, a child or teenager in the United States is killed by a gun in an unintentional shooting, homicide or suicide. Firearm injuries are now the third leading cause of death for children, behind non-gun-related accidents and cancer, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Lewis First, head of pediatrics at University of Vermont Children's Hospital, offers nonjudgmental advice for keeping kids safe around firearms — wherever they may encounter them.
KIDS VT: Guns aren't an issue parents typically discuss with their pediatricians. Why should they?
LEWIS FIRST: Whether or not a child lives in a home with firearms, he or she is likely to visit a home where guns are present. It's estimated that 40 percent of all homes with children in the United States have a gun. Eighty percent of all unintentional firearm deaths of children under age 15 occur in the home. The risk of suicide is five times greater if there's a gun kept in the home. And, a child as young as 3 is strong enough to pull the trigger on a handgun.
KVT: Vermont has permissive gun laws. What advice do you offer parents in this environment?
LF: As pediatricians, it's not our job to tell families that a gun is good or bad. Our job is to advocate safety if a family chooses to keep firearms in the house. There are many reasons people choose to own guns — for hunting, sport and personal protection — and we don't value-judge families based on their decisions. However, if you ask a pediatrician how to keep children safe from guns, the safest way is to never keep a gun in the house.
KVT: How can the 40 percent of homes with children that do have guns ensure their kids are safe?
LF: Gun owners should always keep weapons out of sight and out of reach of children. Guns should be locked away and stored unloaded and with trigger locks engaged. The ammunition should be stored and secured in another part of the house. When cleaning or doing maintenance on the gun, never leave it unattended. Taking these simple steps could prevent between two-thirds and three-quarters of all accidental gun deaths and teen suicides.
KVT: What should parents teach their kids to do if they encounter a gun at someone else's house?
LF: Children should be taught that if they encounter a gun, they should immediately stop what they're doing, leave the area right away, and tell a responsible adult that the gun is out. Do not touch the gun!
KVT: What if parents don't know if their kids' friends' parents own guns?
LF: One of the most important things a parent can do is ask before a child is invited to someone else's house. A great way to do it is to say, "My child tends to be very curious. By any chance do you have anything around the house, such as guns, that my child might get into?" That's a nice way to find out without sounding judgmental. Then, the parent can ask follow-up questions about what precautions are taken to safeguard those guns. If the answers aren't satisfactory, a parent can simply say, "How about your child comes over to our house instead?"
KVT: What about kids who hunt or shoot with family members?
LF: The most important thing they should do is take a state-approved hunter safety course. Children should never be allowed to hunt unless accompanied by an adult. Children under 12 should never be allowed to use a firearm, and no child should be left unattended in the woods. When children or teens are holding a gun, they should always point it in a safe direction, never at anyone or anything they don't intend to shoot. They should never put their finger on the trigger until they're ready to shoot. Also, all firearms should be stored and locked separately from ammo until you're in the hunting area and ready to shoot. Before the older child or teen takes a shot, they should be aware not only of the target itself but also what's in front of, behind and around it. Finally, never force a child to pull the trigger if they don't want to.
KVT: What about less lethal weapons such as BB guns?
LF: Parents need to know that non-gunpowder guns, including BB guns, pellet guns and paintball guns, can also cause injuries, even death. If kids don't wear protective eyewear while shooting these guns, they dramatically increase their risk of serious eye injuries. And kids should never point any guns at other people or themselves.