By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pediatricians Thursday called for the strictest possible regulation of gun sales, as well as more education for parents on the dangers of having a gun at home, to prevent deaths of kids and teens.
In a policy statement published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers representing the American Academy of Pediatrics said the number of gun-related deaths in youth has dropped nationally since the mid-1990s, but is still many times higher than rates in other wealthy countries.
The report was released to coincide with the AAP National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.
Its most important purpose, according to co-lead author Dr. Robert Sege from Boston Medical Center, is to reiterate that kids and teens are at risk if they have access to guns.
"Most children who get injured or killed from firearms get their firearms from home," he told Reuters Health.
That is because young kids are by nature curious, he said, and teenagers are by nature impulsive - including when it comes to guns.
"There's new, better data that although the safest home for children is a home without guns, that parents can protect their child simply by keeping a gun unloaded and locked, with the ammunition locked separately," Sege said.
He and the rest of the AAP's Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention Executive Committee found that as of 2009, between 11 and 12 of every 100,000 older teens were being killed every year by gunshots. About two-thirds of those were homicides, with suicides and accidental deaths accounting for the rest.
Guns were responsible for almost 85 percent of all teen homicides that year, the researchers added. They were also the most common method of teen suicide.
The high death rate in suicide attempts using guns - compared to pills or sharp objects - makes at-home access to firearms especially dangerous for impulsive teens, according to the pediatrician group.
"For 98 percent of families every year, whether you have a gun or not is irrelevant. Most of the time nothing happens, the way that most of the time when you ride around without a seat belt, nothing bad happens," said David Hemenway, head of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston. He was not involved in drafting the policy statement.
The AAP committee also called for restoration of a controversial U.S. ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. President Barack Obama suggested at a presidential debate earlier this week that he would renew a ban on assault weapons - a position not backed by his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Assault weapons include military-style guns designed to fire rapidly and from close range, such as semiautomatic AK-47s.
The AAP cited the cost of gun-related assaults and homicides at over $17 billion a year, due to lost productivity and medical bills. But Hemenway said the true financial burden is much higher.
"When guns are used for homicide it can destroy not only someone's life and their ability to work and so forth ... but it can destroy communities," he said. For example, businesses do not want to move into communities that have had a few shootings, and families that can afford to will move out.
He said the consensus among injury researchers has been that the best thing to do for a child's safety is to keep guns out of the house. But each family has to make that decision on its own.
"If you decide to have a gun, and it's an individual choice, what you really want to do is store it safely," Hemenway said.
(Editing by Michele Gershberg and Jackie Frank)