A pediatric study suggesting that young children — even those with prior schooling in gun safety — will find and play with guns hidden away in unlocked drawers has led to new calls for controlling access to guns and less emphasis on the education programs preferred by gun rights advocates.
In the study, a team headed by Utah University pediatric physician Dr. Geoffrey Jackman observed 64 Atlanta-area boys ages 8 to 12, placed two or three at a time in a room with an unloaded gun hidden in a chest of drawers.
According to the study, appearing the June issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, 48 boys found the gun, 30 handled it and 16 pulled the trigger. "They did everything from point it at each other to look down the barrel themselves," Jackman said. "The scariest thing is when the children picked up that gun and looked straight down the barrel."
Opponents of further gun control measures immediately challenged the results of the study as artificial and an effort to alarm people by projecting the results of small, artificial laboratory samples into the real world.
Responsible gun owners can and do keep their guns safely away from children, said NRA spokesman Bill Powers. And despite suggestions that the effort is ineffective, he said, the organization will continue to teach safety to parents and offer programs like its "Eddie Eagle" safety course in schools that request them.
"Gun owners ought to be trained to safely use and store firearms so that they are never accessible to unauthorized persons," Powers said. "The NRA for 130 years has been teaching parents and children to do that."
The study found that more than 90 percent of the boys who handled the gun or pulled the trigger had reported having some sort of prior gun safety instruction, whether it be an informal discussion with a parent or more formal training at school.
Child psychologist Kevin Dwyer called the results of the study "extremely important," and said they suggested that telling kids that guns are dangerous just isn't good enough.
"It means that we must have external control rather than education control, such as gun locks and reduced availability of firearms in situations where children can access them," said Dwyer, who was not involved in the study.
The experiment involved putting groups of two or three brothers or friends in a clinic examining room for about 15 minutes. They were not told there was a .380 caliber semiautomatic handgun in a cabinet drawer. Researchers and parents watched from an adjacent room behind a two-way mirror.
Twenty-one of the boys came from gun-owning families, some of whom were college educated. Many did not know if the gun was real but played with it anyway, the researchers said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.