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VCU medical residents use gun locks to make firearm safety a priority for pediatric patients
June 18, 2021
VCU medical residents use gun locks to make firearm safety a priority for pediatric patients

VCU medical residents use gun locks to make firearm safety a priority for pediatric patients

With Asking Saves Kids (ASK) Day approaching, we encourage parents to ask about guns in the household when visiting family or making playdates with friends — and offer gun locks to families during clinic visits.

As a first-year resident in pediatrics, Dr. Hannah Hollon observed an upsetting trend in the number of patients arriving at the VCU Medical Center Emergency Department in December 2019 with gunshot wounds.

“I was in the Emergency Department for the whole month of December and I think we saw a gunshot a week … way more than I was expecting,” Hollon said.

Hollon was moved by the experience to help expand firearm safety education at CHoR with the support of Safe Kids Virginia and VCU Police. What began as Safe Kids Virginia and CHoR’s participation in the annual June 21 national initiative ASK Day has grown into a resident-led effort to partner with the organizations, as well as VCU Health and VCU Police, to educate and provide gun locks to patients’ families year-round.

“I, along with a couple of other interns here, … wanted to work on that, particularly by educating our residents and medical students more about the importance of gun safety and how to talk to our families in clinic and in the hospital.”

A VCU Police Officer explains how to use a gun lock

At CHoR, 60 pediatric residents, who have received firearm safety training from curriculum developed in February 2020 by a small team led by Hollon, provide families with an educational flyer — and provide gun locks. Since March 2020, these pediatric residents have given out more than 200 gun locks, both at visits to the pediatrician and to the pediatric trauma follow-up clinic.

“We had some really awesome medical students who reached out to me because they wanted to get involved with our project and offered to help and secure the gun locks,” Hollon said. “So they reached out to the VCU Police Department … and they [initially] provided us with 30 locks, with written instructions on the back of each one, that we keep in clinic and we have a sheet to keep track.”

Hollon said her team will be measuring whether this education program for medical residents is translating into more counseling and distribution of locks to families in the clinic.

Dr. Arthur Kellermann, senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health, did extensive public health research on gun injuries, including co-authoring a 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics which recommended that "guns that are kept in homes should be stored in a manner that renders them inaccessible to children."

“By offering gun locks to families as part of this education program, our residents are taking action to reduce the risk that unsecured firearms in the home can present to children,” Kellermann said. “Pediatricians are taught to prevent as well as treat. Addressing a major cause of preventable injury and death of children, such as gunshot injuries, is important to ensure pediatric patients’ well-being.”

Promoting safety is not limited to those treating injured children in the Emergency Department.

In recent years, CHoR has collaborated with Safe Kids Virginia to promote ASK Day at the Children’s Pavilion. There, families are offered free locks, gun safety education and tips to help them become more comfortable asking other parents if an unsecured gun is kept their home before their child comes to visit. Safe Kids Worldwide has coalitions housed at children’s hospitals across the U.S. CHoR is the lead agency and home of for its Virginia chapter, Safe Kids Virginia.

Corri Miller-Hobbs, program coordinator for Safe Kids Virginia, said that over the past four years, VCU Health and CHoR have seen an increase in the number of children coming into the hospital with gunshot wounds because guns in the home were not stored safely.

“Our focus is making sure families are talking to other family members when they go to their homes … or if you’re taking your child over to a friend’s house,” Miller-Hobbs said. “It doesn't have to be terribly awkward, but just finding out, 'do you have guns? And if so, how do you store them?'”

In addition to families spending more time at home, a change to Virginia law took effect last summer that makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “recklessly have a loaded, unsecured firearm” that could “endanger the life or limb” of a child under age 14.

VCU Police officer Curtis Diesselhorst, who serves as a firearms instructor, said one of the most important aspects of firearm safety, especially around children, is safe storage.

“If you look at the statistics, a surprising number of kids who die by firearms are either suicides or accidents. ... Gun locks are probably one of the most important things to have and use as a responsible gun owner,” Diesselhorst said.

The next big piece? Talking to children as soon as possible.

“It's sort of a case-by-case basis with kids, but whenever they're mature enough and as early as possible is really the key,” Diesselhorst said. “As soon as they can understand the basic stuff is really when you want to start teaching them, because we know kids are curious. They're going to be searching around, and if they stumble upon one, we want them to know what to do with it, and that's pretty much: Don't touch it. Don't do anything with it.”

Diesselhorst stressed the importance of sharing with children that they should always treat firearms as if they're loaded and never point a firearm at anything unless you're willing to shoot.

Dr. Kellermann offers guidance that it doesn’t hurt to stress gun safety to your child, but research has shown young kids can’t tell the difference between a real gun and a toy, while some older kids will be tempted to handle a gun when nobody’s around.

“Since we can’t reliably ‘gun proof’ our kids, everyone should ‘child-proof’ their guns by storing them safely with a trigger lock, lock-box or gun safe,” Kellermann said.

“We also recommend you keep your ammo stored in a separate locked container.” Diesselhorst said. That way, should [children] get one or the other somehow, they still can't fire it.”

At-home gun safety tips from Safe Kids Virginia

  • Keep guns out of the reach of children by storing them securely. Leaving guns unsecured — on a nightstand, bedside drawer or anywhere else a child can gain access —  is a recipe for tragedy.
  • Store guns unloaded, ideally secured in a gun safe, lock box or trigger lock out of the reach of children.
  • When a gun is not being stored, keep it in your safe control at all times. Otherwise, store the gun unloaded, locked and separate from its ammunition.

Additional gun safety tips and resources are available on the Safe Kids Worldwide website.

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