As unintended firearm incidents rise, gun storage is key to safety

The number of unintentional shootings by children in the United States in 2023 has surpassed last year’s count
Children and Gun Safety

Children and Gun Safety

In April of 2016, Julvonnia McDowell’s two sons traveled to Savannah from Atlanta to visit family during spring break. But only one returned home — the other’s funeral was planned.

McDowell’s son, JaJuan, who was 14, was unintentionally shot and killed in Savannah by another teenager due an improperly stored and unsecured firearm. Now, going to restaurants and holiday festivities make her emotional. They remind her of how her family instantly went from four to three members.

“For the holidays, instead of decorating around the home, you’re decorating a grave site,” she said. “You don’t want any family to feel that pain.”

Since JaJuan’s death, she has traveled the country advocating for gun safety and proper gun storage.

“I think it’s very alarming the amount of cases that continue to climb in this climate,” McDowell said. “If it’s a course of action that we can take as adults to ensure the safety and well-being of our children, if that entails secure storage, then I think that is the message that we have to preach far and wide.”

In 2023, there have been 17 unintentional shootings by children in Georgia that resulted in 8 deaths and 10 injuries, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. (One shooting can result in more than one injury.)

In Georgia and the United States, guns continue to be the leading cause of death for kids and teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As 2023 comes to an end, the number of unintentional shootings by children in the U.S., 370, has surpassed last year’s count of 355.

Overall, Injury related deaths in Georgians, ages 18 and younger showed a steady increase of 33% rising from 16 deaths per 100,000 in 2018 to 23 per 100,000 in 2022, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. From 2018 to 2021, there were 173,499 firearm deaths in the U.S. across all ages.

Dr. Randi Smith, a trauma surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital, says that these statistics manifest for her in frequent pager beeps on shifts that alert her of another incoming gunshot wound victim.

Smith says that Grady sees more serious injuries than other hospitals, especially because it’s a Level I trauma center. Since starting at the hospital six years ago, she helped to start the Interrupting Violence in Youth and Young Adults (IVYY) project, a violence intervention program.

Focused on people ages 14 to 34, the program works with gunshot patients along with trusted community partners to provide wraparound services, such as jobs, education, transportation and financial help, intended to help prevent re-injury following a firearm incident. Many patients deal with housing and food insecurity.

Smith says that caring for the victims of violent incidents has shown her the ripple effect violence has.

“When people are injured, their whole lives can be disrupted. But, what we’ve learned is that it’s not just the individual,” Smith said. “Everyone who’s around you, their lives get disrupted. The community that keeps getting gunshot victim after gunshot victim, that neighborhood is impacted.”

She noted the importance of addressing social determinants of health that causes violence to happen and reoccur. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found that in 2020, U.S. counties with the highest poverty levels had firearm homicide rates 4.5 times as high and firearm suicide rates 1.3 times as high as counties with the lowest poverty level.

“We oftentimes are focused on physical ailments, but we have to address the mental, emotional, social and economic as well,” Smith explained.

McDowell works with Moms Demand Action, a nationwide network of volunteers that work to end gun violence across the country. The organization is under the umbrella of Everytown for Gun Safety, which includes almost 10 million Americans, including students, teachers, mayors, parents, gun owners and survivors. Everytown for Gun Safety’s BE SMART campaign promotes responsible gun ownership, which aims to reduce child gun deaths. The coalition works by registering voters, helping to elect leaders who support gun safety and petition to act on ending gun violence.

Dr. Sofia Chaudhary, a pediatric emergency physician, says that her three young children help to motivate the work that she does with injury prevention and gun safety. Chaudhary said what stands out to her about the rise in gun-related injuries is accessibility.

“We know that when guns aren’t properly stored, that tragedy can strike. That’s something that I do see quite often on a weekly to monthly basis in the pediatric emergency room,” she said. “Secure storage is something that can prevent that.”

According to the CDC, 67% of unintentional firearm injury deaths among children and adolescents from 2003-2021 occurred when the shooter was playing with the firearm or showing the firearm to others. Firearms used in unintentional injury deaths were stored unlocked in 76% of incidents.

“It’s the responsibility of an adult to prevent unauthorized access to guns — not a curious child’s responsibility to avoid guns,” Chaudhary said.

Smith acknowledged that the prevalence of firearm incidents has brought more people interested in findings solutions.

“It’s going to take a network, an ecosystem. I think that there are a lot of people starting to recognize that violence, gun violence in particular, is a public health problem,” she said. “We definitely have to treat violence as a public health problem.”

Steps to keep children and teens safe from gun injury

  • Making sure guns are always inaccessible to kids and teens by storing them securely which means storing them unloaded, locked, and kept separately from ammunition. This for both at home and when in the car.
  • Just placing guns out of reach or out of sight isn’t good enough. Guns aren’t stored securely if they are in an unlocked nightstand drawer or unsecured under a seat in the car or unlocked glove box or car door.
  • Ask about the presence of unsecured guns in the home before allowing your child or teen to visit other homes.

Source: Dr. Sofia Chaudhary

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