Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital.
Staying home may help protect families from catching or spreading COVID-19, but spending more time at home can create other health risks, especially for children who share a household with unlocked guns. Last spring, fears about personal security, crime and the economy prompted a surge in firearm purchases, resulting in millions of additional firearms in American homes. Nearly 40 percent of these guns are stored unlocked, according to a 2020 study by a research team that included researchers from Harborview, University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
More unlocked guns in American homes, combined with a sharp increase in depression and suicidal ideation and behaviors among teens and youths, are causes for serious concern, says Isabell Sakamoto, suicide and injury prevention program manager with Seattle Children’s. “The research shows that there are a lot of first-time gun owners who may not be as familiar with the options for safe gun storage,” says Sakamoto.
Keeping unlocked firearms at home dramatically increases the risk of suicidal or unintentional shooting, says Sakamoto. The suicide rate in Seattle is already higher than average; the Seattle-Tacoma area ranks second in suicide attempts out of the 33 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. Between 2018 and August 2020, the number of young adults who reported that they had seriously considered suicide more than doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s been a stark increase in youth suicides, particularly in King County,” says Sakamoto. “Firearm suicides by young people have increased faster than in any other age group, and firearms are by far the most lethal method of suicide.”
Secure gun storage is proven to prevent most fatal shootings, reducing suicidal gun deaths by 78 percent and unintentional shootings by 85 percent. The safest way to store firearms is “triple safe” storage, in which firearms are stored unloaded and locked up, with ammunition locked in a separate location, says Sakamoto.
Seattle Children’s offers resources and education to promote safe firearm storage, including lockboxes and locks for firearms. But with community gatherings temporarily curtailed and many children skipping well-child checkups and vaccinations during the pandemic, health-care providers have fewer opportunities to talk to parents about gun safety, says Sakamoto. “It’s been a challenge, for sure, to have all of this happen at a time when our avenues to reach people are reduced. We also worry about fatigue from information overload around the pandemic.”
Even with fewer community events taking place, Sakamoto wants the public to know Seattle Children’s still offers Safe Firearm Storage education and support for families and for providers who want to learn more about talking to families about gun safety. “We know at least 1 in 4 households in the U.S. now owns a firearm, so we recommend that health-care providers approach the topic with families by assuming that there is a firearm in the home and asking how firearms are stored, instead of asking whether there is a firearm,” she says.
Firearm safety can be a loaded topic, but discussions between families and health-care providers don’t need to be heavy, says Sakamoto. “We recommend approaching gun safety as part of a more general discussion about safety — the same way a pediatrician would talk to a family about bike helmets, car seats or lifejackets. It all comes down to keeping kids safe.”
Triple Safe Storage is proven to prevent firearm injury — keep guns:
- Locked up
- And with ammunition locked in a separate location
Additional gun safety resources:
- Seattle Children’s Safe Firearm Storage
- Lock It Up (Public Health Seattle–King County)
- Washington firearms safe storage map for temporary storage options
- Firearm purchasing and storage during the COVID-19 pandemic (study)
- Project ChildSafe
- Safer Homes Suicide Aware