UW News

February 10, 2005

Safe storage of guns does make difference, study finds

Keeping firearms in a household is associated with a five- to 10-fold increased risk of suicide among adolescents, and an estimated 35 percent of homes with children under the age of 18 contain at least one gun. Can secure storage of these firearms prevent children and adolescents from suicides and unintentional injuries caused by firearms?

Unloading and locking guns and ammunition in separate locations is associated with a significant decrease in firearm injuries in homes with children and teenagers, according to a new study by researchers from the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center (HIPRC) of the UW.

“Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries” is published in the Feb. 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. David Grossman, currently medical director of preventive care at Group Health Cooperative, is the study’s primary investigator. He is also a UW professor of health services and an investigator at the HIPRC.

The investigators studied cases recorded in hospitals and medical examiner offices in Washington, Oregon and Missouri of children and adolescents who shot themselves or were shot unintentionally. These cases were compared with other households, identified by a telephone survey, in which there was at least one firearm and children living or visiting in the home. Firearm assaults and homicides were excluded from the study.

Of the 106 cases studied, there were 82 suicide attempts (95 percent fatal) and 24 unintentional injuries (50 percent fatal). When compared with 480 homes in the control group, guns from the case households were less likely to be stored unloaded, as well as less likely to be stored locked or to have ammunition that was locked.

The researchers found that having an unloaded gun was associated with a 70 percent reduction in risk of a firearm injury occurring unintentionally or during a suicide attempt. Having a gun locked was associated with a 73 percent reduction in injury risk, while locking ammunition was associated with a 61 percent reduction, and storing the gun and ammunition in separate locations was associated with a 55 percent reduction in risk.

“We found that safe storage practices, including keeping firearms stored unloaded, in a locked place, separate from ammunition, and/or secured with an external safety device, appeared to be effective in protecting against both suicide attempts and unintentional shootings among adolescents and children,” Grossman says. “These safety practices suggest feasible strategies to reduce these types of injuries in homes where children live and guns are stored. Pursuing these strategies is particularly important for families with adolescents with high-risk conditions such as depression or substance abuse.”