Aisha Sultan mug

Aisha Sultan 

Erik M. Lunsford

I joke about how grateful I’ll be to hand the car keys to our children and relinquish my role as chauffeur.

But behind that false bravado lies an anxious fear so many parents feel when a child is finally old enough to drive. We are handing them the keys to a machine that could potentially be lethal. And having been teenagers once ourselves, we remember that dangerous sense of invincibility.

So, we make sure they learn the fundamentals of how to drive. They have to pass a written test, a road test and an eyesight exam. We never let them ride without seat belts. We talk to them about the dangers of drunken driving and texting while driving. We establish the rules.

This year, more Americans are likely to die of gunshot wounds than car accidents.

There were 33,804 motor vehicle deaths in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. There were 33,636 firearm deaths that year.

Analysis by Bloomberg predicted the numbers will soon flip because of 10-year trends. Similarly, a report last year by Center for American Progress predicted gun deaths for teens and young adults are on track to surpass motor vehicle traffic deaths this year.

Gun violence disproportionately impacts teens and young adults. But, unlike the clear-cut conversations about car safety, how do parents begin to talk to teenagers and young adults about possible encounters with a firearm? Which circumstances increase their risk of being victimized and what can be done to lower those risks?

Despite news reports, our children are not very likely to encounter a shooter at a school, college, movie theater or shopping mall.

Rather, a confrontation with someone they know — a personal relationship, a former boyfriend or spouse, a family member, an acquaintance — is more likely to result in gun violence. And more than half of firearms-related fatalities are suicides.

Jeffrey Swanson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, is co-editor of a special issue on gun violence to be published next month in Behavioral Sciences and the Law. He is a co-author on a new research study that finds “a distressingly large number of seriously angry people with guns — often multiple guns — living in our communities.”

Their analysis of data from the National Comorbidity Survey looks at the responses when interview subjects were asked whether they had serious anger outbursts, such as losing one’s temper and smashing and breaking things or getting into physical fights. Responses were combined with information from another section of the survey about possessing or carrying firearms.

“It comes to 10 percent of this (nationally representative) sample of adults who have impulsive, angry behavior and access to guns,” he said. They are mostly young to middle-aged men, he said.

Teens and young adults should know this and understand the implications of that risk.

“The presence of a weapon dramatically increases the probability of a death, and guns are so much more efficient at killing people,” said Harold Pollack, professor of Social Service Administration and Public Health Sciences at the University of Chicago. “One of the most serious risks is of suicide of a family member because a firearm is available. It’s a much more common problem than an intruder who seeks to kill you.”

He spoke more bluntly about the responsibility of parents in such cases: “If I had a teenage son who was depressed, that would weigh very highly in my personal calculation of whether I’d want a to have a firearm in my home.”

If a child or adult is going through a rough patch, seek a safe place to store a firearm well outside his reach. In a few places, guns can be legally removed from those family members believed to be a risk to themselves or others. Pollack pointed out that some gun ranges have smart interventions to try to identify people at risk for suicide.

“These are done by people who are often very strong supporters of gun rights but care a lot about the safety of people,” he said.

Accidental or unintentional gun deaths are not limited to young children.

While brandishing a weapon is illegal in all states, showing it in an intimidating or impressionable way can also be a crime. Take it seriously and report it to police.

Even in states in which it’s legal to openly carry or concealed carry a gun, a person entering your living space can be asked not to carry a weapon onto private property — or be asked to leave. If the person refuses, he or she can be arrested for trespassing.

Changes in public policy, attitudes and behaviors have been successful at lowering the rate of car fatalities for young people. Rather than becoming desensitized to a high level of gun violence, parents can use this heightened awareness to start a conversation. We need to be more proactive about a machine that may soon kill more of their peers than the car.

(This is the second in a two-part series of columns about guns and children. Aisha Sultan is the Home and Family editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

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