By Linda McKibben MD DrPH FAAP FACPM
Date: April 2, 2020
I’ve spent my life as a community pediatrician and preventive medicine physician. I know that attitudes and behaviors are very difficult to change. That is exactly why Maryland’s Governor acted to close schools and businesses by executive order, with the force of law, rather than relying solely on public education about social distancing. Medical and public health interventions are often most effective when reinforced by legislation.
We’ve seen the positive impact of legislation in Maryland’s relatively low rates of suicide by gun. In 2017, Maryland ranked as #47 of 50 states (i.e., MD was among the five lowest ranking states), in terms of three related statistics: suicide deaths (10.4/100,000 population), gun ownership (30% of all households), and gun-related suicide deaths (4.5/100,000 population). Conversely, states with the highest rates of gun ownership have the highest rates of gun deaths. States with the strictest Child Access Prevention/Gun Storage laws have fewer pediatric firearm-related deaths. The Coronavirus epidemic threatens to change Maryland’s gun violence statistics for the worse.
One example of the emergency’s impact is on Jaelynn’s Law (Maryland HB 636, SB 646), a bill championed by Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence and the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to strengthen the state’s current Child Access Prevention (CAP) law. This bill would hold gun owners accountable for failing to store firearms securely so they cannot be accessed by children and youth. The new bill might have passed except for the Maryland legislative session being cut short this year by the pandemic. Currently, unloaded guns are exempt from storage requirements. The new law would be applied to unloaded guns and also applied to youth under age 18 years, rather than under age 16.
While the bill will be re-addressed in future sessions, there are other reasons why Marylanders must be more vigilant during the Coronavirus public health emergency concerning safe gun storage practices in their communities. The following are the top three reasons:
- U.S. gun sales are spiking at an unprecedented rate; up by a million during March of 2020, compared to 2019.
- Children are home all day long. This can result in an increase in all types of injuries because parents simply don’t have the resources to provide constant supervision as described in this New York Times article.
- Children and families are more isolated at home under extreme financial, health, and social strains; including higher numbers of calls to domestic violence and suicide prevention hotlines, and unprecedented spikes in unemployment rates.
Public health safety is a community responsibility, while laws and regulations set minimum standards. Responsible gun owners don’t promote sales of guns to children or unproven training courses to guide children’s behavior around lethal weapons. Responsible gun owners share their ownership status with visitors, practice safe storage, and listen to children’s health care providers during routine safety counseling. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the safest practice is to remove firearms from homes where children live or visit; but if guns are legally owned and present, owners must unload and lock firearms in a safe and lock and store ammunition away separately.
Many of you may dismiss my warnings assuming that I live in a liberal enclave where gun ownership is low. I live in one of the most progressive communities in the country. And yet, just miles from my home, I saw a line snake out the door and down the block leading to a local gun store. Concerned about the possibility of new gun owners in my community, I posted information about the importance of safe gun storage to my neighbors online. I heard from a father of teenagers who believes that an unloaded gun is “just a paper weight.” Recently, a teen in Montgomery County where I live showed a firearm during an online class of high school students. Children are curious and creative and they know more than their parents give them credit. An unloaded gun can easily become a loaded gun for a child who is unsupervised for even a short period of time. Likewise, our teenagers are experiencing a prolonged period of social isolation at a time of their lives when their non-familial social and emotional development is just burgeoning. We do not know what kind of mental health ramifications this is going to have. All caution should be used with respect to their access to the most deadly method of suicide attempt. Please share the importance of safe storage with your neighbors and community groups or associations.Send us your stories about local gun-violence prevention activities. We will be back in Annapolis next Legislative Session to pass Jaelynn’s law. Until then, work with us to spread the importance of safe storage with your contacts.