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The accidental shooting deaths of several children in the metro St. Louis area recently has brought increased attention about how to keep kids safe from guns that are kept in homes.

Elizabeth Sugarbaker, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University and SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, says that in addition to taking steps to assure that children do not have access to guns, an understanding of child development can help parents to be more vigilant.

In her lectures to medical students in training to become pediatricians, Dr. Sugarbaker includes information about what she calls “anticipatory guidance” – helping parents anticipate many kinds of potential dangers in the home.

She says that parents already know that children should never have potential access to guns, such as an unlocked gun – or worse, a loaded firearm – and she adds that no parent would ever intentionally put a child in a harmful situation.

But parents may underestimate the curiosity of children and the ability of a child to act responsibility should they gain access to a gun.

Very young children – toddlers through about age four or five – have little concept of the potential danger of a loaded firearm; and if they find one, they likely will be unable to resist examining it, Dr. Sugarbaker says.

“A 3-year-old child really has no idea what a gun is going to do,” Dr. Sugarbaker says. “It’s like finding someone’s medicine in their backpack. It’s a curiosity and the child cannot resist exploring it.”

Parents should begin to talk with children – as early as age 5 -- about the danger of guns, she suggests. Repetition is important, she stresses: The information should be repeated over and over as the child grows older.

“If I had a 5-year-old, I’d talk to the child about these recent shootings,” Dr. Sugarbaker says. “I’d talk to them about the families that are crying; about the friends who won’t see those children return to school.

“I’d express all my feelings as a parent to my child because that might be the one thing that would keep them from getting into trouble with any firearms at another time,” she adds.

But no matter how much instruction parents provide, a youngster through at least the middle years is not mature enough to be trusted to handle a potentially lethal weapon in a responsible way, Dr. Sugarbaker continues.

 “You may have two perfect children from different families; never been a problem with Johnny or Billy, but you put Johnny and Billy together and they find a gun – it’s chemistry; it’s the catalyst that makes the reaction go.”

The best way to keep children safe from injury or death from guns is to never have a gun in the home. This is the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. But of course many people own firearms. For parents who know the dangers of guns and keep one in the home, the often-repeated advice is to:

  • Always keep the gun unloaded and locked up.
  • Lock and store the bullets in a separate place.
  • Make sure to hide the keys to the locked boxes.

Many local police departments also offer trigger locks free – no questions asked – to parents who request them.

Dr. Sugarbaker refers to accidental gun deaths as “preventable tragedies.” In considering developmental levels of children, she reminds parents of the need to supervise toddlers and pre-school age children at all times. “I really don’t think a young child should ever be out of an adult’s sight,” she says.

“You want them to gain independence, but when a 2- or 3-year-old is quiet, you know that something has caught their interest, and maybe you should peek around the corner and check.”

In addition to guns in the home where children reside, Dr. Sugarbaker cautions parents to consider the risk of a child finding a gun in a home where they may visit. She suggest that parents become the advocates for a child who may be visiting in a new home, such as a pre-school play date later when an older child has made a new friend in the neighborhood.

“Parents need to ask tough questions,” she continues. “Are there any guns in the home? If there are, are they locked up?”

She continues, “As a parent, you may decide to have the visit take place at your own home.”

Dr. Sugarbaker also suggests to parents that they be careful when visiting in homes for large family gatherings. “People come and toss their coats in one room, maybe on the bed and children love to go into that room and rumble through the clothing.

“It’s not a good idea. People carry things in their coat pockets, in their backpacks, and in their purses that are dangerous to children, and one thing would be a concealed weapon.”        

Dr. Sugarbaker also encourages her fellow pediatricians to talk with parents when children are brought in for a checkup about gun safety in the home.

“I don’t believe any pediatrician should judge a parent on having a gun. But we should be concerned with assuring that children are safe, and one way is to help parents to become more aware of their child’s developmental levels – what the child is capable of doing at certain ages – that’s the most important thing.”

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