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About 1.7 million U.S. children live in homes with loaded, unlocked firearms, according to the largest survey ever done on home weapons storage, out today in the Pediatrics online journal (www.pediatrics.org).
James Mercy, researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and colleague Catherine Okoro analyzed surveys of 224,000 adults done by health departments in 50 states and the District of Columbia during 2002.
One-third of adults have handguns, rifles or shotguns at home, says the CDC report. But states vary greatly in the percentage of adults who keep weapons, and in how many with children at home store their guns loaded and unlocked. The states with the highest percentage of adults who have children at home and leave guns unlocked and loaded are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Eighteen states have laws dealing with proper storage of guns to limit access by children, says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University's school of public health. But the laws vary in strictness -- 7 states make it a felony under some circumstances to give minors access to weapons -- and they vary in the ages of kids covered, he says.
There's little known about how well these laws are enforced, Vernick adds. "They're great, and we absolutely need more states with laws. But often they seem to get enforced after it's too late, when a child has shot himself or someone else."
Two studies show accidental gun deaths and teen suicides decline in states with these laws, Vernick says.
The Pediatrics report says that of 1,400 children and teens shot to death in 2002, about 90% were home when it happened.
"It's a frightening problem," says Michael Barnes, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a lobbying group that favors limiting gun ownership.
The gun storage survey may underestimate kids with access to firearms, says CDC's Mercy, because women tend to underreport the presence of weapons at home, past studies show. About 60% of survey participants were women.
Gun ownership has declined in the past decade, says Barnes, because the USA is increasingly urban and fewer adults hunt.
Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association of America, declined to comment on specific laws but says, "The sad reality is, you cannot legislate responsibility."
Education is the best way to reduce gun accidents, and the NRA runs many education programs, he says. "Children are by nature curious and will try to seek out objects they shouldn't have. ... It's up to the parents to see that firearms are stored safely."
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