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imagesWhen I was 11 or 12 I got a phone call late one evening.

“Did you hear?” the person on the other end asked, “Dusty committed suicide.”

Dusty was mostly a friend of a friend but I knew him on my own from school. The rest of the night was (as I recall) a succession of phone calls as a bunch of 12-year-old tried to make sense out of an event that was senseless. He lived on a farm and had used a gun. There was general agreement that he had not been sad or cried out for help, at least that any of us were willing to admit to. As this was the 1970s and no one knew quite what to do about the situation, there was no counseling or conversation about the event that I can recall. Life went on with Dusty’s seat empty as if he had gone off on a long vacation. I now know that this was likely an impulsive act in a child who had encountered a problem that to his 12 year old mind seemed insurmountable but if the gun had not been available might have seemed a whole lot better in the morning.

A blogger has written a piece that is going viral about her fears regarding her teenaged son. In it she describes this scene:

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

As the father of children now aged 20 and 22 and a physician who comes in contact with many troubled teens, I recognize that Michael’s behavior might become pathological to the point of resulting in harm to himself or others. I also am very aware that these behaviors might even out and Michael might become a great artist/writer/video game maker. Give Michael access to a gun and deny his mother access to mental health resources and Michael shoots himself, becoming another statistic. Worse, Michael shoots his mother and is being tried as an adult because “killin’s wrong.”

Too many real life episodes contain a couple of elements that intersect far too often. Moody, impulsive teenagers and easy access to guns are combinations that often result in harm. Transitioning to responsible adulthood is never easy and is very hard for some teens, particularly those who are troubled. While only 30%-40% of households have a gun, these homes often have multiple weapons. Even if these weapons are locked up, impulsiveness can lead to an action that is irreversible.

Over 20,000 young people were injured or killed by firearms in 2006. Guns are much more likely to be used successfully for a suicide than for other uses. Some arguments against unlimited freedom for guns and gun owners are as follows:

  • More preschoolers (63) were killed by firearms than law enforcement officers (48) killed in the line of duty.
  • Since 1979, gun violence has ended the lives of 107,603 children and teens in America. Sixty percent of them were White; 37 percent were Black.
  • Although correlation does not prove causality, there is a very strong positive relationship between the number of guns and the number of homicides.
  • In countries with low gun ownership, suicide rates are lower (other methods are not substituted)
  • A gun in the home is far more likely to be used for intimidation of another family member than it is for self-protection
  • Adolescent males, particularly smokers, binge drinkers, those who threatened others and whose parents were less likely to know their whereabouts were more likely both to be threatened with a gun and to use a gun in self-defense.
  • If there is an epidemic of criminals being shot while in the act of committing a crime, they are not seeking care at any hospital that reports bullet holes to authorities

As a physician, my primary responsibility is to my patients. I inquire about gun ownership during “well child” exams and inform parents of the safety risks of having a gun in the home. I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics‘ stance on guns in the home, which is as follows:

Firearm-related injuries and deaths can be prevented when guns are stored safely away from children and adolescents in a locked case. Because of the severe, permanent nature of gun injuries in children, the AAP supports the strongest-possible legislative and regulatory approaches to reduce the accessibility of guns to children and adolescents:

  1. Consumer product regulations regarding child access, safety and design of guns
  2. Child access prevention laws that enforce safe storage practices including the use of trigger locks, lock boxes, and gun safes
  3. Regulation of the purchase of guns, including mandatory waiting periods, closure of the gun show loophole, mental health restrictions for gun purchases, and background checks
  4. Restoration of the ban on the sale of assault weapons to the general public

I would even take it a step further: If you have children, consider not having guns in the house. It could save a lot of lives.