"Is There a Gun in the House?"

Playing It Safe

The good news is that, in recent years, there's been a growing awareness about gun safety, with physicians leading the charge. Since 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has urged doctors to ask, "Does anyone in your home have a gun?" and "Is the gun unloaded and locked up?" as part of a battery of standard questions during early childhood checkups, along with "Do you have smoke alarms?" and "Have you checked the batteries recently?" Not everyone, however, is in favor of these kinds of inquiries. Last year, Virginia legislators considered a bill that could have suspended or revoked the license of any doctor who asked patients questions about gun ownership. The measure failed, but by a close margin.

Schools, too, have begun to include gun safety as part of their regular curriculum, albeit slowly. One of the best-known initiatives is the "Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program," created by the National Rifle Association, which aims to educate children on what to do if they find themselves in the presence of a gun. A program for pre-kindergartners through third-graders, for instance, teaches children who see a gun to: "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult."

While such initiatives help raise awareness, experts say that warning kids about the danger of firearms isn't enough to keep them safe. "Any parent knows that children don't always listen to what they're told," says Dr. Snyder.

Indeed, numerous studies by Marjorie Hardy, PhD, a professor of psychology at Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida, have shown that the powerful allure of a gun -- especially for boys -- easily outmatches the sternest warnings. In one study, a police officer spoke to a class of 60 kids, ages 4 to 6. The children were told, "Don't touch guns -- they're dangerous. If you see a gun, leave the area. Go tell an adult." In a follow-up session, the children indicated they'd learned the lesson, repeating what they'd been told to do. "But when we left them alone with disarmed guns," Dr. Hardy says, "they picked them up and shot everything in sight."

In a second study, a group of 4- to 7-year-olds got five days of lectures on resisting peer pressure, making good choices, and distinguishing toys from dangerous objects. Even then, when left alone with a gun, 65 percent of the children picked it up and played with it. The bottom line: Simply talking with young kids about firearms isn't enough to keep them safe.

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