UW News

May 10, 2000

UW family practice residents research gun ownership, gun safety practices and gun safety counseling

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Note to news editors: An editorial by UW family practice resident Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng, published in the May 9 Seattle Times, accompanies this news release.

University of Washington (UW) third-year family practice residents took on a year-long community project to learn whether gun safety was a health issue for their patients. They were initially motivated by the shock of the Columbine High School shootings. Then, as they shared stories, they realized how much accidental gun injuries and gun-related suicides of patients had touched their lives as well. As family doctors who cared a great deal about preventing illness and keeping people healthy, they wanted to know, “Are we doing our part on gun safety?”

They asked more than 300 of their patients and 41 of their fellow doctors and physician assistants questions about gun ownership, gun safety practices and gun safety counseling. The study took place in Seattle at the UW Medical Center-Roosevelt Family Medical Center. This primary-care clinic sees patients from throughout King County.

The researchers found the following:

Gun ownership:

  • One in seven of their patients have a gun in the house.
  • One in seven of their patients with children have a gun in the house.
  • One in four of their physician and physician assistant colleagues have a gun in the house.

Patients with guns were evenly divided into women and men. Eighty percent of patients with guns had some college education and 68 percent reported earning more than $45,000 a year. Compared to all patients surveyed, patients with guns were similar in age, education, and income, although a higher percentage of men reported having a gun in the house.

When asked the main reason why they owned a gun, 38 percent reported having a gun for protection, 40 percent for sport or hunting, and 16 percent for their gun collection.

Gun storage:

  • More than half the patients with guns reported storing them unlocked.
  • One in four patients with a gun reported a loaded and unlocked gun in the house.
  • One in five families with guns and children reported a loaded and unlocked gun in the house.

Gun safety training:

  • More than half of families with children had not talked to their kids about gun safety.
  • Two-thirds of families with children and guns have talked to their kids about gun safety.
  • Two-thirds of patients with a gun in the house have had safety training; the other third have not.

Gun safety counseling:

  • Half of the patients surveyed said that doctors should counsel about gun safety.
  • Five percent of the patients say their doctors have asked about gun safety.
  • Six percent of the patients with children say their doctors have asked about gun safety.
  • Two-thirds of the doctors and physician assistants surveyed said they are not trained in or are not comfortable with counseling on gun safety.

Washington state gun laws:

In Washington state, any resident 21 years or older without a prior felony or domestic violence conviction can purchase a handgun after a background check and a wait of five business days. For $60, a five-year concealed weapons permit allows the holder to carry a gun in a handbag or pocket into most public places, including churches. No gun experience or safety training is required to use a gun in personal defense in an owner?s house or in public.

To use a gun for hunting, the law requires those obtaining a hunting license to take a 10-hour minimum gun safety class for those born after 1972. The hunter?s education classes cost only $5 and the instructors teach kids as well as adults.

Phone calls made to all firing ranges in the Puget Sound area located gun safety classes ranging from $15 to more than $180. Calls to all gun shops listed in the Seattle Yellow Pages found that most gun salespeople who answered the phone were able to refer the caller to a gun safety course when asked.

National statistics on gun ownership:

An estimated 35 percent to 50 percent of all homes in the United States have firearms, accounting for an estimated 200 million privately owned firearms. Thirty-five percent of homes with children have guns. In these homes, 43 percent of the guns are unlocked, 14 percent are loaded, and 9 percent are both loaded and unlocked.

The risk of domestic homicide is three times greater if a gun is present in the home and the risk of suicide is five times greater. A gun kept for protection is 22 times more likely to kill someone the owner knows than to kill someone else in self-defense.

One in three pediatric residency programs and one in six family practice residency programs offer formal training in gun safety counseling.

The UW family practice residents conducting the gun safety study made the following recommendations:

  • All gun purchases should have background checks and waiting periods.
  • All gun owners, not just hunters, should have safety training.
  • All guns should be stored in a safe, locked place where children and people other than the owner can?t reach them.
  • Gun manufacturers should be required to put safety devices, such as trigger locks, on all guns they sell.
  • All physicians should be trained to ask their patients if they own guns and to counsel patients on gun safety in a non-judgmental fashion.