New research indicates the increasing number of handguns in American homes is killing more toddlers.

University of Waikato senior lecturer in social policy Dr Kate Prickett has carried out the research with colleagues Dr Carmen Gutierrez and Dr Soudeep Deb. It has just been published in Pediatrics - the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The project covers the connection between family firearm ownership and firearm-related mortality among young children in America over 40 years, from 1976 to 2016.

Dr Kate Prickett.

The US has the highest firearm-related mortality rate in the developed world. There were over a hundred firearm-related injury deaths among 1 to 5 year olds in the US in 2016, and firearm-related injury is currently the fifth most common cause of injury-related deaths among that age group.

The researchers have found the firearm-related mortality rate among non-Hispanic white children aged 1 to 5 years old declined from the 1970s through to a low around 2004. But it then increased to its current rate of .4 deaths per 100,000 children. Over that period, the proportion of families who have just a rifle or shotgun has declined, but the proportion who have a pistol or handgun in the home has been on the rise.

The researchers’ models estimate that for every 1% increase in the proportion of families with young children who own handguns, the firearm-related mortality rate among 1-5 year old white children goes up by close to half a percent.

Dr Prickett says young children are most affected because handguns are more likely to be stored in an easily accessible place and loaded with ammunition. She says another reason is that the weapons are easier for toddlers to operate, with studies showing that children as young as two have the tensile strength to fire a handgun.

Policy-makers have attempted to address the issue of firearm safety through legislation aimed at restricting children’s access to firearms. But Dr Prickett says those laws could be broadened on a federal level, and that their effectiveness relies on having more general laws related to firearm safety, such as background checks for gun purchases.

For practitioners, Dr Prickett says that research has shown that parents are comfortable discussing firearm safety with pediatricians. “Medical practitioners should ask parents about firearms in the home, and discuss the possible ramifications of different types of firearms. They also need to work with parents to find solutions that keep firearms locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked away in a different location.”

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