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VCU pediatrics residents distribute gun locks to protect kids

Storing guns safely is one way to prevent accidental shootings.

Mother speaking to young daughter, who looks scared Photo: Getty Images

As a first-year resident in pediatrics, Dr. Hannah Hollon observed an upsetting trend.

“I was in the Emergency Department for the whole month of December [2019] and I think we saw a gunshot a week … way more than I was expecting,” Hollon said. Many of the gunshot victims were children.

Hollon was so affected by the experience that she began work to expand firearm safety education at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR), with the support of VCU Police and Safe Kids Virginia. 

“I, along with a couple of other interns here … wanted to work on [firearms safety education] …  by educating our residents and medical students more about the importance of gun safety and how to talk to our families in clinic and in the hospital,” Hollon said.

Safe Kids Virginia is the local chapter of Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization working to help families and communities keep kids safe from injuries. The organization operates out of children’s hospitals across the United States. CHoR is the lead agency and home for Safe Kids Virginia.

200+ gun locks distributed

At CHoR, 60 pediatric residents have received firearm safety training from a curriculum developed by Hollon and others in February 2020. The residents provide families with an educational flyer and gun locks. Since March 2020, they have given out more than 200 gun locks at CHoR general pediatrics and trauma follow-up clinics.

Dr. Art Kellermann, senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health System, has conducted extensive public health research on gun injuries. He co-authored a 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics that recommended that guns kept in homes should be stored in a manner that renders them inaccessible to children.

“By offering gun locks to families as part of this education program, our residents are taking action to reduce the risk that unsecured firearms in the home can present to children,” Kellermann said. “Pediatricians are taught to prevent as well as treat. Addressing a major cause of preventable injury and death of children, such as gunshot injuries, is important to ensure pediatric patients’ well-being.”

Asking about gun safety in the home a crucial skill

In recent years, CHoR has collaborated with Safe Kids Virginia to promote ASK Day at the Children’s Pavilion. There, families are offered free locks, gun safety education and tips to help them become more comfortable asking other parents if an unsecured gun is kept in their home before their child comes to visit.

Corri Miller-Hobbs, program coordinator for Safe Kids Virginia, said that over the past four years, VCU Health and CHoR have seen an increase in the number of children coming into the hospital with gunshot wounds, often because guns in the home were not stored safely.

“Our focus is making sure families are talking to other family members when they go to their homes … or if you’re taking your child over to a friend’s house,” Miller-Hobbs said. “It doesn't have to be terribly awkward, but just finding out, 'Do you have guns? And if so, how do you store them?'”

Gun storage safety is the law

A change in Virginia law took effect last summer that makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to recklessly have a loaded, unsecured firearm that could endanger the life or limb of a child under age 14.

VCU Police officer Curtis Diesselhorst, who serves as a firearms instructor, said one of the most important aspects of firearm safety, especially around children, is safe storage.

“If you look at the statistics, a surprising number of kids who die by firearms are either suicides or accidents. ... Gun locks are probably one of the most important things to have and use as a responsible gun owner,” Diesselhorst said.

Talk about gun safety as soon as kids are ready

“It's sort of a case-by-case basis with kids, but whenever they're mature enough and as early as possible is really the key,” Diesselhorst said. “As soon as they can understand the basic stuff is really when you want to start teaching them, because we know kids are curious. They're going to be searching around, and if they stumble upon one, we want them to know what to do with it, and that's pretty much: Don't touch it. Don't do anything with it.”

Parents should teach their children to always treat firearms as if they're loaded and never play around with firearms.

Research has shown that young kids can’t tell the difference between a real gun and a toy, Kellermann said, while some older kids will be tempted to handle a gun when nobody’s around.

“Since we can’t reliably ‘gun-proof’ our kids, everyone should ‘child-proof’ their guns by storing them safely with a trigger lock, lock-box or gun safe,” Kellermann said.

“We also recommend you keep your ammo stored in a separate locked container.” Diesselhorst said. That way, should [children] get one or the other somehow, they still can't fire it.”

For additional gun safety tips and resources, visit Safe Kids Worldwide.

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