If you've got a gun, and you've got a kid, you've got a problem.

The problem is child and teenage suicide (search) and unintentional shootings. Suicide is more common when there are guns in kids' homes, their relatives' homes or their friends' homes. It may be true for accidental shootings, too, although that is unproven.

Now, however, there is strong evidence that safe gun storage cuts down on both kinds of tragedy. The findings come in a report by David C. Grossman, MD, MPH, and colleagues in the Feb. 9 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Grossman's team interviewed 82 families with a child who used a household gun to attempt suicide (95 percent of which were successful) and 24 families with a child unintentionally shot with a household gun (52 percent fatal).

They compared them to 480 families that owned one or more guns but did not experience a child suicide or accidental shooting.

The researchers asked about four safe gun-storage strategies (search):

— Storing the gun unloaded

— Storing the gun in a locked location or with a lock on it (a trigger lock or on-gun locking device)

— Storing the gun separately from ammunition

— Storing the ammunition separately in a locked location

The risk of child/teen suicide and accidental shooting:

— Dropped by 70 percent when guns were stored unloaded

— Dropped by 73 percent when guns were locked or locked up

— Dropped by 55 percent when guns were stored separately from ammunition

— Dropped by 61 percent when ammunition was locked away

More than a third of U.S. households have guns. Yet nearly half — 43 percent — keep at least one gun unlocked.

In an editorial accompanying the study, JAMA editor Thomas B. Cole, MD, MPH, and Harvard researcher Reneé M. Johnson, MPH, PhD, note that surprisingly little research has been done on why parents keep loaded, unlocked guns in their homes.

"The study ... strongly suggests that unsafe firearm storage is associated with firearm suicide and unintentional firearm death," they write.

They call on doctors to recommend that parents store their guns locked, unloaded, and away from ammunition. If parents can't do all of this — perhaps because they believe the guns offer their children more protection from intruders than risk of suicide or accidental shooting — even one of these steps could keep their children safer.

By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Grossman, D.C. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Feb. 9, 2005; vol 293: pp 707-714. Cole, T.B. and Johnson, R.M. The Journal of the American Medical Association,Feb. 9, 2005; vol 293: pp 740-741.