The Danger Behind the ‘Family Gun’
Unfortunately, an unsettling 43 percent of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm. Such carelessness is not only dangerous to other family members, but also to the children themselves. In an experiment by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a full third of 8 to 12-year-old boys who found a hidden handgun pulled the trigger, either because they thought the gun was a toy or didn’t care if it was.
While searching for chewing gum in his great-grandfather’s room on May 29, Trenton Mathis, a 2-year-old Texas boy, found instead a loaded 9mm semiautomatic. With that gun, he accidentally shot and killed himself.
It’s also uncomfortable to acknowledge the risk that having a weapon on hand presents to those who may use it on themselves. In 2010, the number of gun suicides was nearly twice as high as the number of gun homicides, and many of those suicides were young people who used a family gun. In April, 13-year-old Nigel Hardy, plagued with adolescent depression and anxiety, stole his father’s unsecured handgun from their home and fatally shot himself in the head.
Some gun owners can ignore the threat their weapons pose to children, and many own guns specifically to protect themselves or their families from violent intruders. Even with the risks, gun ownership advocates say, it’s worth it to have easy access to a gun in your home for protection. Owners fear that restricted access to gun purchases would leave them vulnerable to attack. In their arguments, they often point to the claim that there are 2.5 million “defensive gun uses” per year in the United States.
But that number is pulled from a single study, which is now two decades old. This datedness is unsurprising: The NRA and other pro-gun groups exert considerable pressure to prevent government institutes like the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health from further researching gun use and safety.
Furthermore, that 2.5 million figure does not represent the number of lives saved. Rather, researched asked respondents: “Within the past five years, have you or another member of your household used a gun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection or for protection of property?” Within the methodology, an answer of “yes” did not mean the respondent actually fired the gun—perhaps they took it with them downstairs to check on a suspicious noise. In fact, the FBI counted an average of 213 justified firearm homicides per year over the period 2005-2010. So if that 2.5 million number stayed at that level during that span, it would mean that producing a gun in self-defense led to a fatality only 0.00852 percent of the time.
In any case, a 2011 American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine article found that fewer than 30 percent of burglaries in the United States occur when a resident is present. Though it is frequently depicted in film, criminals do not generally enter homes intending to inflict violence. Although families spend much of their time at home, only 5 percent of all violent crimes perpetrated by strangers occurs in the victim’s home.