By Dennis Thompson
WEDNESDAY, Feb. 21, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- In the aftermath of last week's deadly shooting rampage at a Florida high school, a new survey shows that parents are loath to remove guns from their home even if their child might be mentally unstable.
In fact, firearms are as likely to be present in the homes of troubled children as in the homes of kids with no mental health issues that predispose them to suicide, the survey found.
Further, parents of potentially suicidal children are not more likely to keep their guns unloaded and safely locked away in the home, the researchers noted.
"You want to make it as hard as possible for these kids during an impulsive, vulnerable moment to end their lives," said senior researcher Dr. Matthew Miller, a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston.
"The single best way that science knows of to prevent that is to remove guns from the home, and the second best way is to make sure guns in the home are absolutely inaccessible," he said.
Access to firearms in a home triples suicide risk among family members and doubles their risk of being murdered, according to a 2014 evidence review that combined data from 16 previous studies.
Further, firearms accounted for more than 40 percent of suicides among children aged 10 to 17, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The lethality of guns makes them a particularly dangerous threat in the hands of troubled kids, said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency physician at the University of Rochester Medicine Strong Memorial Hospital, in New York.
"You are much more likely to complete a suicide with a gun," said Murray, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "You can overdose on some pills and it maybe won't kill you. The outcomes are much more devastating when you're faced with such a powerful weapon as a gun."
The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that the safest home for a child is one without firearms. Risk in homes with firearms can be reduced substantially by storing all household guns locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition.
Gun control has become a focus of national debate following the shooting deaths of 17 people on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The alleged gunman is a 19-year-old reported to have a history of mental issues.
But years before this latest tragedy, Miller and his colleagues set out to find whether having a mentally disturbed child changed the way parents kept firearms around the house.
Starting in 2015, the researchers surveyed almost 4,000 adults from across the United States, asking them about guns in their home and the presence of suicide risk factors among their children.
Parents were asked whether kids suffered from one of three different risk factors that have been linked to self-harm -- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or other mental health conditions.
Household firearms were present in 43.5 percent of homes with kids who had one or more of these risk factors, compared with 42 percent of the homes where kids appeared stable, according to reports from parents.
Among parents with firearms, only 35 percent kept their guns locked away, unloaded and separate from ammunition when they had a child with suicide risk factors, compared with 32 percent of gun owners with healthy kids, the researchers found.
In essence, two-thirds of homes with children and firearms store at least one gun unlocked and loaded, whether or not a child is potentially suicidal.
The findings were published online Feb. 21 in the journal Pediatrics.
Gun owners do not appear to see firearms as a potential threat in the same way other common household objects can be, Murray said.
For example, parents wouldn't think twice about locking away potentially harmful medications if their child is suicidal, or removing alcohol from a home where a kid is struggling with substance abuse, she said. Salt use is restricted in the kitchen when a family member has high blood pressure.
"There are lots of other situations where we make changes in how our household operates because of health concerns," Murray said. "It would really behoove us as a society to think of it just that way."
Miller remembers riding around in his father's car without a seat belt as a child, something that would be unthinkable today.
"There's been a shift in the social norms around what it means to be a responsible parent driving a car," Miller said. "The same sort of shift needs to take place when it comes to what it means to be a responsible gun owner when you have kids in the home."
The National Rifle Association (NRA) did not respond to a request for comment from HealthDay.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has more about firearms and suicide risk.
SOURCES: Matthew Miller, M.D., Sc.D., professor, health sciences and epidemiology, Northeastern University, Boston; Elizabeth Murray, D.O., pediatric emergency physician, University of Rochester Medicine Strong Memorial Hospital, Rochester, N.Y.; Feb. 21, 2018, Pediatrics, online
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