ECSU professor’s gun study gets national recognition

In this January 2017 file photo, two guns secured with locks are displayed during a news conference in Oklahoma City to announce the launch of an effort to reduce firearm accidents. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
In this January 2017 file photo, two guns secured with locks are displayed during a news conference in Oklahoma City to announce the launch of an effort to reduce firearm accidents. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The American Journal of Public Health has named a firearm storage study co-authored by an Eastern Connecticut State University professor a 2018 Paper of the Year.

"Storage Practices of U.S. Gun Owners in 2016," co-authored by health sciences assistant professor Mitchell Doucette, surveyed 1,444 gun owners about whether they practice safe storage and why.

In the online survey, 46 percent of owners said they safely store all their guns. Those who had children at home or had taken a gun safety course were more likely to practice safe storage than their counterparts.

The owners also said they would be most likely to listen to safe storage advice from law enforcement, hunting or outdoors groups, active-duty military personnel or the National Rifle Association.

"It's good to know because then perhaps we can work with whoever's administering gun safety training courses to make sure that information is being conveyed to firearm owners," Doucette said.

About one-third of U.S. households have guns, a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found, and research shows homes with guns — especially those where children live — have an increased risk for homicide, suicide and unintentional shootings.

An average of 35,141 people are killed by guns each year in the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show, with suicide accounting for 61.6 percent of the deaths.

Fleeting suicidal thoughts are common, Doucette said, and if a person — he mentioned adolescents in particular — has access to an unsafely stored firearm, the likelihood of death is higher.

Doucette said the study, which he worked on while he was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, fell in line with others in that about 50 percent of people said they didn't practice safe storage. But it was different from other papers in that the researchers met with gun owners before sending out the survey to figure out which questions to ask.

"There have been a number of these ... studies to try to increase the rate at which people safely store guns," Doucette said. "But until now we didn't know what sources (gun owners) might be more likely to listen to" on the issue.

Safe gun storage can meaningfully reduce gun-related injury, papers from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Society for Adolescent Medicine and American College of Physicians have said.

Owners can safely store guns by placing them in locked containers or using tamper-resistant trigger or cable locks, but some say doing so defeats the purpose of having a gun for self-defense.

Unlike Massachusetts, Connecticut doesn’t require such storage. Under a 1990 state statute, gun owners can be charged if they fail to safely store a loaded gun and a minor uses it to injure or kill himself or another person, but the charge rarely is levied.

One 2015 bill that would have required safe storage for all guns failed to make it out of committee. Another, which would have made the 1990 statute applicable to everyone instead of just minors, never made it to the floor for a vote.

In testimony on the bills, Connecticut Citizens Defense League President Scott Wilson wrote, “If firearms are 'all' locked and unloaded, how would an individual actually stop a violent home invader from harming themselves, or other family members? None of these bills being heard today will prevent guns that are obtained illegally by criminals that wish to inflict harm by robbing, or murdering, innocent people.”

In the study Doucette worked on, about 43 percent of owners said concerns about home safety impacted whether they stored their guns safely.

But "the situation where a home defense is necessary is actually quite rare in the United States," Doucette said.

He said the risk of a child accidentally firing a gun, an adolescent using it to kill him or herself or a teenager stealing it to commit a crime "greatly outweighs the risk of an actual home invasion."

More than 200,000 guns are reported stolen in the United States each year, National Crime Information Center data show, and a yearlong investigation by nonpartisan, nonprofit news site The Trace found many are recovered only after being used in a crime.

On its website, the American Journal of Public Health said papers of the year address important and timely public health issues, offer new knowledge or insight and have potential to significantly impact public health. The journal selected five winners last year.

"To me it's validation in terms of the research process," Doucette said of being selected. "We were very diligent in how we developed the questions."

l.boyle@theday.com

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