Matthew Bellamy loved to hunt with his dad, Chip, near their home in Little River, South Carolina. "We started talking to him about the dangers of guns when he was 3," says his mom, Mylissa. Safety was a top priority for the Bellamys. They always triple-checked their weapons to make sure they were unloaded and kept them locked in a gun safe. But these precautions didn't protect 11-year-old Matthew when he and a 12-year-old friend found a hunting rifle lying on a bed at the friend's grandparents' house three years ago. Assuming the gun was unloaded, Matthew's buddy, who also hunted, picked it up. As he handed the rifle to Matthew, it fired accidentally. The bullet struck Matthew squarely in the chest. He died on the way to the hospital. "We took the right steps to keep guns away from our kids and their friends," says Mylissa. "It never occurred to us to ask others whether they did the same."
With an estimated 270 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. -- nearly one for every man, woman, and child -- the odds are good that there's a gun (if not several) located someplace where your child spends time. If that fact doesn't give you pause, this one will: A study published in Pediatrics found that nearly 1.7 million children under age 18 live with a loaded and unsecured gun in the house. It could be on a closet shelf, in a drawer, or under a mattress -- where a child can easily reach it. Yet few parents raise the issue of firearms before letting their kid play at someone else's home. "Most parents who own guns are responsible about keeping them locked, unloaded, and stowed away safely," says Beth Ebel, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. "Yet nearly 40 percent of gun-owning households with children have an unlocked gun to which a child might gain access."
Understandably, the nation's focus has been on tightening gun laws in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which took the lives of 20 children and six adults. However, the biggest threat to our kids' safety likely isn't assault rifles, a lack of school security, or weapons that fall into the hands of the mentally ill. It's the guns that are commonly found in our own homes. Each year, nearly 140 minors are accidentally killed and more than 3,000 are injured by firearms, most often at home or while visiting a friend, relative, or caregiver. About a quarter of victims under age 14 unintentionally shoot themselves. And, according to data from the Harvard School of Public Health, these estimates are certainly low, because many unintended shootings are incorrectly labeled as homicides.
Although the AAP recommends that all kids' environments be free of firearms, many loving families choose to own weapons. If yours is among them, it's your job to take every possible precaution (see "Take Our Gun-Safety Pledge," below). But you still can't let down your guard. As the Bellamy family learned too late, other gun owners may not be as careful, so it's crucial to protect your child.
Anyone who's seen a preschooler use his thumb and index finger to "shoot" bad guys knows that weapons hold an innate fascination for little kids. "If a child finds a ball, he'll bounce it; if he finds a gun, he'll shoot it. The impulse is totally natural," says Dr. Ebel, who is also director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington, in Seattle. It can also be deadly: Studies show that kids as old as 12 have a hard time distinguishing real guns from play ones. That's why it's never too early to talk to your child about what to do if he sees a firearm, even if he thinks it's only a toy.
Since 1988, the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program has been promoting firearm safety in schools and youth groups as well as through law-enforcement agencies. Its main points: If you see a gun, 1. Stop. 2. Don't touch. 3. Leave the area. 4. Tell an adult.
Unfortunately, research shows that most kids can't resist the lure of handling a gun, even after they've been warned repeatedly not to do so. "Children can recite what to do if they find a gun and still do the wrong thing when it counts," says Raymond Miltenberger, Ph.D., professor of applied behavior analysis at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. As proof, he cites his studies published in Pediatrics, which showed that 4- and 5-year-olds who participated in verbal safety training didn't follow the correct procedure when they were left alone in a room containing a gun.
Nevertheless, it's better to have these types of conversations with your child than to ignore the issue of firearms entirely, as too many of us do. A poll on children's health conducted by the C. S. Mott Children's Hospital, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that 18 percent of gun-owning parents and 52 percent of non-gun owners have never talked to their kids about firearm safety.
Experts recommend that by the time your child turns 3, you should review regularly what to do if he discovers a firearm. Start by showing him photos of a handgun and a rifle. Tell him if he ever finds either one lying around, he is to leave the area and find an adult at once. Emphasize that he must never touch a gun. Then quiz him. Praise him if he knows the proper way to respond, and correct him if he doesn't.
For a child 6 or older, you should also discuss the differences between the make-believe images on TV shows or in video games and what truly happens when someone is shot. Let him know that even though they may look the same, real guns are very different from pretend ones. "Grade-schoolers need to understand that unlike in combat games or action movies, people don't get up and keep going after they've been shot," says Margot Bennett, executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization. "There are no do-overs. Many people die."