Keep Out Of Reach

by Pia K . Hansen

It's summer, school is out, and chances are your kids are playing in the park and spending more time at their friends' houses than they usually do. When the youngsters head off on a tour to the lake, you probably ask if there are life jackets available on the boat or the dock. If the kids head out on a bike ride, you ask them to wear their helmets. If there's a pool at that one friend's house, you ask if there is going to be adult supervision as well. But when was the last time you asked another parent if he or she keeps a gun at home?

That may not be the most comfortable question to ask, but it should be asked -- especially if there are no guns at your own house. On Friday, June 20, the CeaseFire Foundation of Washington kicks off a two-year public health campaign titled Asking Saves Kids (ASK), encouraging parents to ask exactly that question.

"This is not about politics or about attacking legislation, or anything like that -- I want to make that perfectly clear right from the beginning," says DeAnna Martin, spokesperson for CeaseFire. "We are trying to create a culture where the risk of firearms to children is not as high as it is today."

Martin likens the campaign to the early campaigns about drunk driving.

"When we started seeing those spots on TV, many of us were still very uncomfortable telling a friend or a family member that we thought they had had too much to drink to drive," she explains. "Today, it's much more acceptable to say that to someone. We are modeling this campaign somewhat after the bike helmet campaigns, and we'll use radio and TV advertising, brochures and outdoor advertising to reach people."

In the fall, when school starts, CeaseFire hopes to have a speakers' bureau ready to hit the streets.

"We are grooming speakers over the summer so they'll be ready for a more concerted effort to talk to parent groups later this year," says Martin.

It's estimated that 33 percent of homes in Washington state contain at least one firearm, and that one out of every seven guns is stored unlocked. And it's a sad fact that children and teens do get hurt by unattended guns: In the years 1997-2001 (the latest years for which data is available), 293 youth under the age of 19 were non-fatally injured and 287 were fatally injured by firearms in Washington state alone. Of those who died, 84 lived in Eastern Washington -- 18 of them in Spokane County.

"That means that about one-third of those who died lived in the eastern part of the state, that's a high number if you take into consideration that the main part of the youth population lives in the western part of the state," says Martin. Most died from homicides, but a little more than one-third died from suicide.

The ASK campaign is focused on preventing some or all of these death and injuries, and the CeaseFire will carefully monitor its progress by polling and collecting statistics while the campaign is going on.

"What we are doing is encouraging parents to ask if there's a gun where their children spend time," says Martin. "And if there is one, is it safely stored in a locked box, with a trigger lock on it, and the ammunition stored separately?"

In a poll done prior to the launch of the Asking Saves Kids Campaign, 71 percent of parents said they don't ask if there are guns at other kids' houses, yet 78 percent say they are concerned about the same thing.

"Most say they don't ask because it didn't occur to them," says Martin. "The second most common answer we got to that question is that the parents assume the gun is safely stored, and the third answer is that they think the child would know better than picking up a gun that's left out. Yes, some did say they would feel awkward asking, but it didn't come up as an answer at the top of list."

CeaseFire has been around since 1995, and the organization's mission is to reduce firearm injury and death. Since 1998, CeaseFire has also operated a political action committee, which is one of the only PACs in the nation that makes campaign contributions to local politicians based on their views of gun control. But Martin is adamant that the ASK campaign is about public health and injury prevention - not anything else.

"This campaign is not about passing judgement as to whether you should or should not own a firearm," she says. "It's about prevention."

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Publication date: 06/19/03