Pediatricians are giving out free gun locks to tackle gun violence epidemic as public health crisis

In a triage waiting room at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, a clear basket full of gun locks sits near the sidewalk, just visible to passers-by.

In a triage waiting room at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri, a clear basket full of gun locks sits near the sidewalk, just visible to passers-by.

Hospital staff call it the “No Questions Asked” basket to promote gun safety without having to confront gun owners with a potentially sensitive and divisive issue. It stocks a selection of cable gun locks free of charge for anyone who needs them, as well as leaflets explaining how to properly and safely store firearms.

The initiative, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding gun safety, is part of a growing effort by medical professionals who are treating the country’s gun violence epidemic as a public health crisis.

“You have to be by the bedside of a child who’s been shot to realize that we all need to do more, and as the leading cause of child deaths in this country, pediatricians have to be at the heart of the solution, of all things,” said Dr. Annie Andrews, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert in gun violence prevention.

according to dr Lindsay Cukies, a pediatric emergency room doctor at the hospital, thousands of gun locks were removed from the basket over the course of two years.

In the coming weeks, baskets of free gun locks will be available at more than 17 locations operated by BJC HealthCare, an organization that serves metro St. Louis, Mid-Missouri and southern Illinois, Clukies said. It is an inexpensive and effective way to easily distribute firearm safety devices.

“We’ve had employees and patients take our locks, their families too, and even a grandmother who took one for her grandson. It’s for anyone who needs it,” Clukies told CNN. In recent years, a growing number of pediatricians across the country have addressed the issue of gun safety in medical facilities, focusing on safety and prevention that are already a natural aspect of their job.

During patient visits, pediatricians are increasingly asking the patient’s parents if there are guns at home and, if so, how they are stored. Some hospitals then offer free gun locks, often sourced from donations or police departments, coupled with training in safekeeping.

Some pediatricians, who witness the impact of gun violence on children in their workplace every day, told CNN that they see it as their duty as medical professionals to be part of the solution to the epidemic.

In 2022, gun violence killed 1,672 children and youth under the age of 17 and injured 4,476, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that has tracked gunshot injuries and deaths since 2014.

“We have as important a voice in this conversation as anyone because we are the ones who have invested our entire careers in protecting children and making sure children can grow into the safest, healthiest version of themselves,” Andrews said.

“It’s only natural that we see these things, that we understand they’re preventable, and we want to get involved in finding solutions,” she added.

Hundreds of children take up arms every year

So far in 2023, high-profile incidents of children having access to firearms have prompted calls for stricter, more consistent laws across the country requiring adults to safely secure their guns out of the reach of children and others who don’t have them may use. They have also highlighted a lack of public education about gun owners’ responsibilities to keep their guns unloaded, locked and away from ammunition, CNN previously reported.

In early January, a 6-year-old boy was taken into police custody after taking a gun his mother bought from his home, taking it to school and shooting dead his teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, police said . A little over a week later, a man in Beech Grove, Indiana, was arrested after live television showed video of a toddler, allegedly the man’s son, waving and pulling the trigger of a pistol, CNN previously reported.

According to research from Everytown for Gun Safety, a leading nonprofit focused on preventing gun violence, every year hundreds of children in the United States gain access to firearms and accidentally shoot themselves or others. In 2022, there were 301 accidental child shootings, resulting in 133 deaths and 180 injuries nationwide, data from Everytown showed.

Gun injuries are now the leading cause of death among people under the age of 24 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Academy of Pediatrics released an updated policy statement in October 2022 noting that guns are now the leading cause of death in children under the age of 24 in the United States.

The Academy’s statement called for a “multi-pronged approach with layers of protection focused on harm reduction, which has been successful in reducing motor vehicle-related injuries, is essential to reducing firearm injuries and fatalities among children and adolescents.”

according to dr Lois Kaye Lee, pediatrician and chair of the Academy Council on Injury, Violence and Poison, the Academy offers free training modules for pediatricians that teach them how to have challenging or uncomfortable conversations with families about firearm prevention.

“This shouldn’t be seen as something extra; It should be considered part of our daily work on injury prevention, whether it’s firearms, child passenger safety and suicide prevention,” Lee said.

dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told CNN that the public health approach to combating gun violence removes politics from the issue and “places it within a scientific, evidence-based framework.”

“Physicians have a unique opportunity to engage their patients, the parents of children, or the parents themselves as individuals to make their homes safer,” said Benjamin. “We’re already doing this for toxins under our kitchen cabinets, razor blades and sockets in the wall.”

Pediatricians strive for a non-judgmental discussion

In the emergency room at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, all patients are screened for access to firearms and are offered free gun locks and safekeeping training, Clukies said. Gun locks can also be mailed to families free of charge through the hospital’s website.

“Every patient who comes into our emergency room, whether it’s with a fever, a cold or a broken arm, is asked about access to firearms,” ​​Clukies said, adding that 5,000 locks have been issued since the initiatives began in 2021.

In collaboration with trauma nurses, physicians, social workers, violence intervention experts and family partners, the hospital has created a “non-judgmental” script that doctors can follow when asking patients about access to firearms, Clukies said.

During the screening process, pediatricians ask parents or caregivers questions such as: Do you have access to a firearm where your child lives or plays? How is it stored? Is it stored unloaded or loaded?

“When I started doing this, I was like, ‘Are there guns in the house? Yes or no?’ But I’ve found, and learned from other experts, that if you just say, “If there are guns in the house, can you tell me how they’re secured?” it takes away judgment,” said Andrews, a pediatrician whose hospital, the Medical University of South Carolina, also offers free gun locks to patients.

Families are interviewed during the “social history” phase of a firearms patient visit, during which pediatricians ask who lives in the home, what grade the child is in, what activities the child is involved in, and where the child goes to school. If parents indicate that their firearms are not stored securely, e.g. On a shelf, for example, or in a nightstand drawer, Andrews says these are important opportunities for intrusion and reconnaissance about storage devices such as keyboard lockers, biometric fingerprint safes, and other types of locking systems.

It’s also important for pediatricians to understand the parent’s or caregiver’s motivation for owning a firearm to “inform the conversation about where they’re willing to meet you as far as storage is concerned,” she added.

Free gun locks increase safekeeping, study shows

Andrews and Clukies said they were pleasantly surprised by the willingness of families to speak out about firearm safety, which most recognize is an attempt to protect their children.

“I expected more kickbacks than we received, which is because we really focused on how to frame these questions properly,” Clukies said. “I think that’s because we’re making this a neutral conversation and we’re focusing on safety and prevention.”

Andrews added that it’s unusual for medical schools or residencies to discuss gun violence prevention, which she says is due to the “politics surrounding the issue.”

“Fortunately, that has evolved, and more and more pediatricians are recognizing that we need to be an integral part of solving this problem,” Andrews said.

At St. Louis Children’s Hospital, about two months after the initiative’s fall 2021 launch, pediatricians have been following up patients who received a free gun lock in a research study to see if their retention practices had changed.

The study found that two-thirds of families reported using the gun lock provided to them by the hospital, and there was a “statistically significant decrease” in those who did not store their firearms securely, as well as an increase in those who did kept unloaded, so cukies.

But there is still work to be done in the medical community to tackle the gun violence epidemic, and scientific research on the subject is “woefully underfunded,” Andrews claimed.

According to Benjamin of the American Public Health Association, a multidisciplinary approach by policymakers, law enforcement and the medical community is essential to promoting safer environments for children.

“Injury prevention is a central part of any doctor’s job,” said Benjamin. “That’s definitely on our track.”

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